There is nothing as comforting as being listened to, cared for, or loved unconditionally. Sadly, there are many times when there is no one around who can be that ear to listen, hand to hold, or smiling face that doesn’t care what is going on in your life. For many people a pet can fulfill this void, both momentarily and for a lifetime. Here in San Diego, Love on a Leash, a local chapter of the National Foundation for Pet Provided Therapy, brings trained animals to hospitals, schools, libraries, and assisted living centers to be that special someone who will just sit, listen, and love.
At Pacific Animal Hospital we see many special pets, many of whom are trained in a variety of occupations and skills. One such pet, Prince, is a trained therapy dog and member of the Love on a Leash team. We recently had the special privilege of sitting down with Prince and his mom, Mary, to find out a little bit more about Prince and what it is to be a therapy dog.
Tell us a little about Prince and his training for therapy work:
Prince has been volunteering with Love on a Leash for 3 1/2 years. He is a five year old, medium sized standard poodle. He has two handlers, his owner Mary, and a second handler and friend of Mary’s, who handles Prince when Mary brings her other dog Baron to visits. In order to become a certified therapy dog Prince had to have sound obedience skills. Prince began early on in a series of obedience classes working his way from beginning to advance. He then attended Kindred Spirits, in Oceanside, to be certified as a therapy dog. This training involved more obedience, distraction training, and how to work around wheelchairs, walkers, and other assistance devices. Prince and Mary then completed an internship, working with 3-4 other dogs, gaining real-world experience. Mary and Prince now mentor new dog-interns, sharing their skills and training with new recruits.
Where does Prince work now:
Prince mainly works in schools and with the Love on a Leash library program. He also visits at retirement homes and hospitals on a limited basis. Mary noted that dogs and handlers can decide what groups they would like to work with. The experience is both training for the dogs, and also for the people interacting with the pet. Mary and Prince teach children how to interact safely with dogs and also share with the children their love. The level of commitment depends on the handler and dog, with a minimum commitment determined by the therapy organization. For Prince this means several weekly visits to libraries, schools, and the Tri-City hospital.
Prince works individually with 2 or 3 kids on a regular basis at Tri-City. One child did not want to attend therapy as she was getting older. Her therapist thought bringing in a dog might be helpful. Mary and Prince were contacted, and came to meet the young girl. It became apparent that having a companion in therapy gave the young girl a reason to return, and now looks forward to going to Tri-City knowing she may have a partner in recovery.
How did you know Prince was going to be a therapy dog:
Mary found that for therapy dogs it is all about disposition. As any puppy Prince was very enthusiastic, would pull and be a puppy, but Mary knew at a young age that Prince’s temperament could handle working with a diverse group of people. Mary noted that Prince thinks he is a human, and prefers to be around people, doing people things. If his family is lounging around, he wants to lounge around. If they are running errands he wants to go run errands, and sits up like a human in the car.
What is Prince’s favorite part of being a therapy dog:
Prince enjoys being around kids. They tried retirement homes, but his disposition was not the same as when he was at schools and the library. He lights up at the sight of kids. Prince is happy to sit with children and be read to, play hide and seek, or even a little fetch. Prince mainly focuses on visits with elementary and small children, but will also go to middle schools and visit with older children. Prince has even gone to Cal State San Marcos for finals, and enjoys helping to de-stress the students.
Does Prince have a preference to working in groups or alone?
Prince enjoys working both as a group and individually, but Mary finds that his favorite time is when he is working alone. This time allows him a chance to get more attention from the kids and revel in the love. Prince also likes to work with other dogs, and thrives as a guide and teacher for other dogs in training.
What does a therapy session look like?
Both Prince and Mary follow the directions of the therapist, and Mary says they are happy to do whatever is asked. Sometimes they will work with the kids on walking up and down stairs, the kids can practice talking to Prince or introducing Prince to other people in the area, as well as play games, read, or do other requested activities. Prince is also encouragement for many kids to continue to go to therapy, as each time they may have a surprise visitor waiting for them. Mary and Prince also go around and visit other areas of the hospital. They frequently go to the rehab area, where people are recovering from surgeries. The patients find it to be very enjoyable to have Prince come by, as they can pet him and say hello.
What does Prince like to do in his spare time?
Although Prince’s favorite thing to do is go visit with Love on a Leash, when he is not working his favorite activity is to spend time with human family. Mary noted that Prince often times behaves as a human would, sitting upright in the car or cuddling with his dog-friend Baron. If Prince’s family is lounging around, Prince wants to be lounging; When Mary goes shopping, Prince wants to go shopping and as locations allow Prince does! When Prince was young, Mary would use the Carlsbad Outlet Malls as a training area. Prince could meet and play with people of all shapes and sizes, getting used to their differences and becoming comfortable around them.
Any suggestions for aspiring therapy dogs or handlers?
Be prepared for lots of obedience training. Also, temperament and socialization is key to a happy therapy dog. The more people and surroundings a potential therapy dog sees the better off they are for training and certification. Be prepared for the long haul, even once trained there is a level of commitment from all dogs and volunteers. The experience is extremely rewarding for the dogs, handlers, and the public who interacts with them and well worth the training.
(photo provided by owner, Mary)