Therapy Dog FYI

Three years ago I learned about St. John's Ambulance Therapy Dog program and knew that it was something that my new rescue Scout would be amazing at. At the time the process of becoming a volunteer was a little difficult but since the program has grown it has become much easier to find information about the program and how to get involved with it. Scout and I volunteered with the program for two years before Scout had to retire due to age. Throughout our time in the program we attended numerous promotional events, did an interview for Eastlink Magazine and were honoured to receive the Therapy Dog Team of the Year award where Scout and I attended a ceremony at province house and received  our award from the Lieutenant Governor.

In our first year of the program we volunteered at the VG's Transitional Care Unit, a ward designated to senior patients awaiting permanent placement in permanent care facilities. In our second year as Scout's age began to show I knew he needed the people he visited to be able to get down to his level, so where better to go then the IWK? Most of Scout's visits were spent with him sleeping on the floor while kids snuggled up to him and gave him tummy rubs.

If you think you would be interested in looking into becoming a Therapy Dog volunteer please read through the information below.

What makes an ideal Therapy Dog?
  • Your dog should be well socialized and able to handle strange circumstances.
  • Your dog should be able to remain calm in indoor places, or be able to settle down on command.
  • A Therapy Dog does not need to be perfectly obedient, but obedience training can help bond a dog and handler, it also helps to be able to have them respond to commands such as sit and down when visiting with patients.
  • Your dog must be comfortable with other dogs. We do many promotional events in which other dogs are present, other dogs will be present at the evaluation session and there is always the possibility that another dog may show up when you are on a visit.
  • A potential Therapy Dog must love people, if you have a fantastic dog that is shy or afraid of people, Therapy Dog work may be too stressful for them.
  • Therapy Dogs must love all types of people, men, women, young and old.
    • Therapy Dogs are required to complete a separate children's evaluation before volunteering with any minors.
  • If you think your dog fits into any of these categories, please keep reading. If your dog doesn't fit all these, still please keep reading, some dogs are naturals when it comes to Therapy Dog work, others require more work.

If your dog doesn't sound like an ideal Therapy Dog, how can I get them to be?
  • Socialization.
    • Socialization is the key to producing a fantastic Therapy Dog. Some dogs are naturally calm and relaxed in all situations. Scout is an example of one of these dogs, I never did any training with him to become a Therapy Dog. My puppy Kobi on the other hand showed the initial signs of being a great calm and relaxed dog, but once out of the shelter and into his adolescents, he's proving exactly the opposite, but that doesn't stop me from keeping my goal.
  • Take your dog everywhere!
    • If you have a puppy, start this young (being mindful of taking them places appropriate for their age and number of vaccines). If you have an older dog that you usually leave home, start taking them everywhere.
  • Take you dog to the park to watch kids and other dogs play, work on keeping them calm.
  • Take them into as many stores as you find
    • Get them to meet people, not bark and have good indoor manners
  • Take them to crowded places
    • Summer is a great time with events on the commons or events like the buskers, walk them through thick crowds, get them used to being around lots of people.
  • Take them for drives.
    • Most volunteers need to drive to the facilities they visit, if your dog hates the car, start working on getting them used to being in the car
  • Take them to the dog park.
    • Getting your dog socialized with other dogs is also something to work on.
  • Get them to meet as many people as possible.
    • If you walk to the grocery store, wait outside while a friend or partner does the errands, try to get you dog to meet people calmly.
    • Try to meet all types of people. Kobi is more nervous around men than woman, yet seems to be great with kids.
  • Some dogs will find socializing a breeze, some will take a huge amount of work. I have been working with my puppy for 7 months and he still needs lots more work, if Therapy Dog is something you really want to do, every day is an opportunity to socialize your dog. It's also a great way of working with your dog and satisfying their needs, not to mention it helps build the bond between you.

Becoming a Volunteer

Check out the Therapy Dog website for any and all information on getting involved in the program. Things to expect are a general application process, criminal background check, a vet check to ensure your dog is up to date on all necessary vaccines and the evaluation.

What to expect from the evaluation?

The evaluation process is to determine if your dog is indeed ready to begin work as a Therapy Dog, as well as to see how you as the handler lead your dog. The evaluation is very similar to the canine good neighbor test. Your dog has to be able to meet people politely, handle unusual situations, stay calm around lots of people and other dogs and be able to be settled down on command.

The evaluation is not a be all and end all. Teams of handlers and dogs must pass the evaluation to be able to volunteer, but you can do the evaluation multiple times. I like to tell people the the evaluation is a way of determining what you need to spend more time working on. Some dogs might be great with strange situations, but are nervous when surrounded by lots of people or vice versa.

Common questions:
  • Can any breed volunteer?
    • Yes, any breed is welcome to volunteer with SJA Therapy Dog.
  • Can any size dog volunteer?
    • Yes, we have 5lb lap dogs all the way up to 100+lb great danes volunteering in our program.
  • What kind of commitment is it?
    • Volunteers are just that, Volunteers, you work with the facility you are volunteering with to determine a schedule that works for you. 
    • Volunteers can do up to several shifts a week or just one shift a month.
    • Many facilities prefer to have day time/ weekday visits but there are facilities that can accommodate evening and weekend shifts.
  •  How long are visits?
    • Hour long visits are standard for most volunteers, but we always encourage people to accommodate their dogs when considering length of visits. If your dog can only mange a half hour, that's okay. We don't want your dogs getting stressed out by their visits. If they need to leave to go to the bathroom, take them out. If they are showing signs of stress or discomfort, end the visit early.
  • Where can I volunteer?
    • SJA is partnered with numerous facilities throughout the province, and do their best to not only provide you with your first choice but to set you up in one that is near by.
  • Where can I do an evaluation?
    • Evaluation times and locations do change, there is usually one held in Dartmouth every six weeks, but evaluations do occur throughout the province.
  • Can I start volunteering at the IWK right away?
    • No, to volunteer at the IWK volunteers must have been in the program for a minimum of a year before completing a children's evaluation. Once completed the IWK only has openings for a limited number of teams so there is often a wait list. 
  • How old does my dog need to be?
    • Dogs must be a minimum of a year old before volunteering. That being said, just because you dog is a year old, does not mean they are ready to volunteer. I am now realizing Kobi may not be ready to volunteer until he is about two years old. Every dog is different.
  • Is it better to volunteer with an older dog?
    • Older dogs do tend to be more common in the program as they have matured and calmed down and love meeting with new people. The downsides of starting with an older dog is your time spent in the program may be short as was the case with me.
  • Are there any other Therapy Dog programs in Nova Scotia?
    • Yes, Therapeutic Paws of Canada does have a Therapy Dog program in Nova Scotia. I am not familiar with how their program runs so for any information regarding their program please check out their website.  TPOC website

I hope this information was useful and answered some of your questions about becoming a Therapy Dog volunteer with St. John's Ambulance. Please contact the Therapy Dog coordinator with any questions you have about the program or to get additional information. If you think there is something else I could include on this page that would be useful for potential volunteers please contact me.

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