BY SUSANNA PINKUS
There aren’t many things in life which just spread happiness but being the lucky human companion of a therapy dog is one.
I am often asked what Woody does in his role as a therapy dog. And it is a good question. After all, some therapy dogs listen to children reading or visit residential homes amongst many other important tasks. And whilst we sometimes do those too, these aren’t his main duties. In Woody’s case, he has a very important job. That is simply to give and receive love. And I find that whatever the situation, love is good for everything.
Over the years, I have seen first-hand, how children often have such a special and natural affinity with animals. For example, for children who are anxious about coming into school, knowing that a furry friend is there to greet them can make all the difference to attendance. For others, finding solace or companionship in an animal who accepts and loves them as they are, is such a beautiful thing.
I was therefore hopeful that having a therapy dog companion in my role as a specialist in thinking and learning differences, could be a huge asset when working with young people and their families. And finally, after much research and planning, four years ago, we brought our cavapoo puppy, Woody, home, and since then, I have slowly integrated him into my work life too. I can’t now imagine my workdays without him in it.
It has been wonderful to witness how young people, nervous about meeting me, are clearly reassured and calmed by Woody’s presence . His friendly greeting often takes the focus away from the child and brings an element of unexpected joy into the room. His wardrobe of bow ties and jumpers, alongside his repertoire of tricks are also a good conversation starter. And because he trusts me, the children I see instinctively seem to trust me too. I also notice how Woody is very able to read what that person needs, sometimes just to lay quietly at their side or to put his head on their knee.
I have learnt so much myself from having him by my side: the value of deep companionship, listening without speaking, and having an enthusiastic approach to life.
After slowly working towards the Pets as Therapy (PAT) standards, Woody qualified as a PAT dog last year and since then, I have often been asked for advice on training a dog to work alongside you. Although I am not an expert, I have learnt so much along the way. Here are my top tips:
1. Remember this is always about training you, the human first. And this is a relationship like others in life. Really take the time to build a strong positive bond with your dog.
2. Don’t feel the need to rush towards qualifications. It took us two years but when we did, the timing was right.
3. Make sure that therapy work is the right choice for your individual dog. It isn’t for every dog.
4. Socialise your dog in tiny steps in a way that builds confidence but is not overwhelming for them or you. Go gently at their pace with lots of praise and treats.
5. When you catch your dog doing the right thing be sure to praise him or her. Dogs really want to please – look to catch them doing the right things – timing is everything!
6. Teach basic commands. I find ‘down’ so handy at work especially during meetings. Tricks too are a nice ice-breaker when working with children. Who doesn’t like a dog high fiving you!
7. Proactively think about the structure of your days to incorporate your dog’s needs. Include rest, movement and mental stimulation. Luckily, I often find that usually if he needs a break or a walk, I do too.
8. Build patience (both ways). Having a dog that is patient and will happily wait whilst you have conversations is very important. Equally, I am always mindful to give Woody lots of time to sniff on our walks.
9. You can never have too many poo-bags and treats on hand!
Image Credit: Artwork by Ria Mishaal