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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Reflections on being a Therapy Dog Handler

I would do Therapy Dog work full-time if I could.  I think Daisy (my therapy dog) would too.  It would have to be a variety of activities because some things take up more time and energy than others.  But we love them all and always look forward to our times with all the people we visit.

We became a Therapy Dog team kind of by accident.  When our youngest daughter was in first grade, we received a note from the teacher asking for parents to help in the classroom.  Because of schedules and whatever else I no longer remember, I started listening to first graders read their poetry notebooks on Friday afternoons.  I had started visiting a little with Daisy when our daughter was in kindergarten, but didn't really have a plan or goals.  So when this opportunity came up, I decided to try it again -- this time with a purpose and a goal in mind.  I wanted to see if 1) we would be good at being a team and serving others and 2) if we would see an improvement in the children's reading abilities through their interactions with the dog. Both questions were answered affirmatively and we began our journey together as a therapy dog team.

The teacher is a friend (we live in a small town!) and she was more than willing to let me try taking Daisy into school and listen to kids read.  We had a wonderful year of poetry, first graders and getting our therapy dog team feet wet!  I will always be thankful to that teacher (for many reasons, but this one especially) for giving us the chance to see what therapy dog work is all about. 

Because of our success that year, both ours and the children, I designed and implemented the first reading to pets program in our school district.  For several years we had 8 -- 12 teams reading with children of all different ages.  Unfortunately, as schedules and lives changed, that particular program no longer exists in its original form, but the doors were opened for therapy dog teams and there are many teams reading with many children throughout our district every week of the school year.

I have continued to read with children both in schools and in libraries.  Daisy and I still love to pack up our therapy dog bag and listen to kids read each week!  Just try to miss a week with my intuitive little beagle!  In 2009, both my husband and I with our therapy dogs joined a national K9 crisis response team -- Extra Mile Ministries' K9 Chaplains/Comfort Dogs.  This organization puts together some of the finest teams I have ever had the privilege to work with and sends us to areas affected by crisis, tragedy, and disaster.  We, personally have been to Northern Illinois University twice and on a goodwill/information trip to Kansas and Nebraska, and other teams have been to the fires in California, Virginia Tech, Hurricane Katrina areas, and countless local situations.  Each year we are privileged to serve with the team at the Parents of Murdered Children (POMC) annual conference.  

About a year ago, I added an assisted living facility to our schedule.  I did it a little reluctantly, mostly because I had no experience at all with older people and never in such a facility.  But it has been so rewarding and we have made some wonderful friends!  Daisy even got her first birthday card ever this year from one of the residents at the assisted living facility.

If you are thinking about therapy dog work, think outside the box!  We never thought our energetic, eternal puppy-like, exuberant golden retriever would make a good therapy dog -- but he loves listening to kids read and he is outstanding when doing work on college campuses and at the POMC conference.  The very thing we thought would preclude him from being a good therapy dog -- his energy -- draws people to him like a powerful magnet!  There are infinite therapy dog opportunities out there -- thinking outside the box will lead you to them.

These are some links to some different therapy dog related posts:

This is a link to the Face of Crisis website -- the crisis response team with which we serve: 

This is a link to the Therapy Dogs Incorporated website -- if you are interested in doing therapy dog work, please get registered!  (There are several wonderful registering organizations -- we are registered with TDInc.)  It provides you with support, opportunities, and insurance.  It is not difficult and it's so very important!

The therapy dog part of our journey often exceeds my expectations and always is fulfilling.  I love sharing my dog with others and I love helping other teams get registered and get started.  Animals have so much to offer and it's a privilege to share the journey with the animals, their handlers, and those they serve.

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