This photo was taken in the dark.
When I got my “Mouse” 12 years ago, I knew that doing therapy dog was on our bucket list. His mother was a therapy dog, and he certainly inherited those genes from her. I just layered on the training and socialization. Once Mouse retired from competitive sports, he officially started his therapy dog career. Prior to then, he made frequent appearances at events as a breed and sports ambassador, thus he was accustomed to and enjoyed large crowds.
His therapy dog test went well, and he started visiting an assisted living facility, schools, libraries, and eventually healthcare facilities. On our animal assisted therapy journey, I’ve learned quite a bit about what it is like being a handler for a dog in demand, and I’m going to share them with you.
He sometimes wears costumes to work. It’s a unicorn.
- You will never be as popular as your dog. In fact, people don’t care about you. They only care about your dog. Mouse has gone through three thousand business cards in three years. I’m pretty sure that many people don’t even know my name. I’m just the doggie chauffeur.
- Your dog’s social calendar puts yours to shame. For real. He gets more invites to events and media requests than I do.
- You spent a great deal of time washing your dog. It really helps with seasonal allergies. You also do frequent exams of your dog during baths so you’re more aware of things like hot spots, lumps, scrapes, or anything going on with the eyes and ears. My life pretty much revolves around washing my dog. My dog doesn’t have allergies anymore, and my hands are really dry.
- Add 30 minutes to both ends of your visits. It often takes 30 minutes to get somewhere, and then to leave. Before you get to your destination, be assured that a small crowd will be following you so that you move towards your destination at about 5 feet per 10 minutes.
- Sometimes you work with people who are in situations that you can’t even imagine. When you see kids with cancer enjoying the simple things in life, you can’t complain about minor inconveniences to yours. Live life to its fullest. Those less fortunate than you are doing it.
- Sometimes your dog is the highlight of someone’s day. When you’re stuck in a hospital bed with no companionship, a friendly face is just the thing that can cheer you up. Don’t take for granted that other people are just a phone call away. Things can certainly get lonely in a hospital bed. And certainly don’t take your dog for granted.
- Being a handler forces you to be a good mood and in a supportive role. Not only are you there to offer emotional support to the patients, but very much so the medical staff. They need cheering up as much as the patients. You are there to bring joy so you just gotta be happy even when you are always.
- Sometimes you have to play a bigger role in acting as a distraction for family members receiving bad news. Sometimes you play a big role of distracting a patient who is being uncooperative. It isn’t always easy to be in those roles and still put on a cheery face.
- Sometimes you see people at their worst and weakest, and they bare their souls to you even though you are a total stranger. You learn to be really compassionate and understanding. It isn’t uncommon to be the friend who is there to someone you just met.
- In addition to supporting people, you need to be supportive of your dog. When we do events with larger groups, you have to be aware of the safety of your dog. Sometimes people will try to feed your dog prohibited foods or “ride” on your dog. It is your job to watch out for those of those behaviors.
- I often get many questions about the process and training of becoming a therapy dog team. Make sure you have trainers and resources you can direct people to so they can get involved in animal assisted therapy.
- Sometimes people will tell you that they want a service dog so you have to be very clear that a therapy dog is NOT a service dog. It is also frowned upon to fake a reason for needing a service animal. Faking a disability is really offensive and hurtful to those who do need a service dog. Here’s a trendy article on some real jobs service dogs do.
This is pretty much his favorite position.
Do you like my hat?
We have a dog down.
He took a nurse down with him