MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — USA Health is looking for therapy dog teams. These teams go into patient hospital rooms to lift spirits and provide comfort. Even though many of us have delightful dogs, not every dog is suited for therapy work. Pet Partners is one of the organizations that certifies therapy dogs. They allowed WKRG to come on a Saturday morning to show the tough test dogs have to pass in order to be certified at USA Health.
The most important attribute dogs must have is obedience. The dog has to be able to sit, stay (while the owner walks 15 feet away) and lie down on command. The dog also must be able to walk on a leash, ignore treats on the ground, ignore other dogs used as a distraction and cannot jump or bite. It’s a strict test.
Sarah Majors is one of the Pet Partners evaluators.
“You can’t have any aggression,” said Majors. “No licking, no mouthing. Some dogs aren’t biting, but they are mouthy on the hands. We don’t want that.”
Handler, Rachel Leard, brought two dogs to the Pet Partners test. Her collie mix, Jesse, was being recertified. This gorgeous dog passed with flying colors. He never took his eyes off Leard.
“You have to have a dog with the right temperament, and skill set,” said Leard. “Depending on the environment that you are vising, your dog may have to be bomb-proof. If something crazy happens, or loud noise, they can’t be scared. You have to have a dog that can go with the flow and be happy about it.”
Leard’s second dog, Zee, didn’t perform as well in one area. She barked…twice. The first time she was excited and barked in the evaluator’s face. The second time was during one of the exercises where she was being led on a leash. She wasn’t being “bad,” but she was very excited. Because of the barking, she did not get the highest score. She can visit patients while supervised, but Leard plans to have her retested in a few months.
“At the end of the day, they are not perfect just like we, handlers, are not perfect,” said Leard.
The other dogs being evaluated all passed the test, but their handlers were nervous. They tell WKRG it was hard for the dogs to go in a strange room, full of strangers who are evaluating you. Frances McGowin’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Cappy, was very gentle.
“She is very calm and loving to everybody,” said McGowin. “She can tolerate petting. All the things that are involved with a hospital or a nursing home, she’s good at. She can tolerate or enjoy affection at the same time.”
“They are going into hospital,” said Majors. “People are sick. They have IV lines, bandages, or have had surgery. These dogs have to be dependable. We have to make sure they aren’t going to jump up on a bed if not told to.”
If you would like to see the exact qualifications to become a therapy dog, you can visit the Pet Partners evaluation page here.
If you are interested in learning more about the Pet Therapy teams at USA Health, you can contact Rebekah Blanchard at Rwblanchard@health.southalabama.edu.