Tweaks, Props, Tricks: How to Make Therapy Visits Even Better

If your dog is not only your pet, your stand-up comedian, your shrink, your exercise companion, your smile inducer, your best friend, but also a therapy dog, you and he can tweak your visits to make them even better than they are today.

Years ago, I was asked to bring my Golden Retrievers, Oliver and Fanny, to a nursing home to cheer up the patients. Both dogs knew tricks so I knew I would be able to make people laugh; that’s always a good beginning and a way to lower stress in the audience, the dogs, and the handler. I also liked to show what dogs learn when they go to school and to take questions or hear stories from the audience.

But this day, when I arrived, the social director, whose dog I had trained, pointed out a woman sitting in the middle of the group with her head hanging down and her hands resting on her lap, palms up, a typical pose of depression. “Can you help her?” she asked.  “I’m a dog trainer,” I thought, “not a psychotherapist.”  What on earth could I do for this lady?

I began to work the dogs and watched everyone enjoy the little show, except this one woman, who never lifted her face and never moved. Nothing I or the dogs did engaged or cheered her.

The show was coming to an end and I felt sad that she was still so sad. The last routine was that Fanny had a little red change purse she loved to carry around, and I was going to hide it for her to find, one of her favorite games. That’s when I realized what to do. Fanny was taken out of the room so she wouldn’t see where I hid the red purse. I went up to the depressed lady and stage-whispered so everyone could hear, “Is it okay if I hide Fanny’s purse in your pocket?”

Of course, she didn’t answer me but I slipped the purse into her pocket, patting her arm as I did.  Then I called Fanny back in to find her purse.

The little show was in the dining room and the lunch dishes had not been cleared. Fanny went from person to person but seemed confused, perhaps by the smell of leftover food, and could not locate the purse.  That’s when the audience began to call out, “Let Oliver help her.”  So I did.  Oliver went right to the sad lady, and instead of slipping the purse out of her pocket, he tapped her pocket with his nose and backed up so Fanny could make the find.

And then the grand finale got even more grand. I got to see the face of the depressed lady. Her head was up and, miracle of miracles, she was smiling. Was it the feel of Ollie’s nose tapping against her? Was it Fanny, tail wagging wildly, slipping the purse out of her pocket? Whatever it was, it worked, and when I turned around to look at the social director, she was beaming.

Know Your Audience

Just as I would spend some quiet time thinking about the breed of any new dog I was about to train, I would also think about the people I would be visiting with my dogs when I did pet therapy. For some, just the presence of a dog or two is good medicine. For some, the visiting dog “allows” for speech that normally isn’t there. With nursing home populations, be prepared to visit each person individually and listen to what they want to share. With kids, anything magical is, well, magical. Kids love to see a dog respond to a cue that you spell. They love it when a dog does math. They love silent work, particularly when the cue is subtle. With small tweaks, some fun up your sleeve, and a few props that are appropriate for the group you are visiting, you and your therapy dog can make a lasting impression.

Give Him Props

Always bring some props, particularly those geared to your audience. If you go into schools and work with kids, you will get some fabulous, challenging questions. Here’s one I got from a 10-year-old when I was showing them what dogs learn in school. “What would happen if you put Oliver over there,” he said, pointing to the far end of the room, “and put a dog biscuit in the way and called him to come?”

Great question, I told him. Let’s see. One of my “props” was a big dog biscuit, which I placed on the direct path Oliver would take. You could hear a pin drop. I called him and he ran right to me, right over the biscuit, to a round of clapping and hooting. And then the kids wanted him to be able to eat the “prop.”  So he did.

Trick Track

While people love petting dogs and some who are silent end up speaking in the presence of a dog, teaching funny tricks and games always adds to the experience. Ask your dog how old he is and have him bark his age. Or ask how old the oldest person there is and after a few barks, your audience will be hysterical.

I have taken a pad and colored pencils and asked if anyone would like to draw the dog. Once I drew a lady in a wheelchair and put my therapy dog in the picture. She asked if she could keep it and I said, “Of course.” When I left, I looked back and saw her hugging the drawing.

The message? When you do pet therapy, be prepared for almost anything. Be prepared to make people laugh and then go outside and cry. Because you will be moved. Pet therapy is amazing.

One last point: even with clapping, laughing kids or smiling, delighted older people, your dog has worked hard. When the session is over, he will need a run, a swim, or just a long, quiet walk, many kisses, and a good, long nap.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.