Owning a pet can bring so much to your life. Pets are full of love, provide frequent companionship, and even offer a number of health benefits.
Combine two good things and you end up with an especially good idea: why not volunteer with your pet?
What is a therapy dog?
A therapy dog is a dog that’s been specially trained to safely provide affection to people in environments where they could especially use it. That usually means assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and hospitals, but can also include colleges during exam time or areas recently hit by a frequent disaster.
For people who don’t have the ability to own their own pets, or can’t keep them close during the time they have to stay in a hospital or other institution, having access to a friendly, loving animal can make the day much brighter and contribute to improved physical and mental health.
How does training work?
First, your dog has to master all the basics that are taught in low-level obedience courses. This includes many of the commands you may already be familiar with:
- Here (or Come)
- Leave it
They also need to be able to greet a new person without jumping up on them and should have already mastered leash walking without any problems.
If you’ve ever trained a puppy, you know some of these “basics” can be difficult to master and take some time, but if you keep working with a dog, most will eventually move past this point and into the phase where you can begin training them to be a therapy dog.
A lot of dog trainers offer courses specifically for therapy dog training. In a pet therapy training class, your dog will learn how to be around children and other dogs successfully. You’ll learn how to read your dog’s body language so you can better respond to their behavior in a variety of situations.
By the end of the training, your dog should be able to approach people calmly and behave appropriately in any of the environments you’re likely to take them into for pet therapy.
After the training, there’s one more step the two of you will have to take to make their therapy dog status official. You’ll undergo an evaluation that allows a trainer to see how well your dog manages the primary tasks that they need to have down in order to be a successful therapy dog. If the trainer gives you the go ahead, then you can get started. Typically, the trainers that provide therapy dog classes can point you toward institutions in your area that enjoy having visits from therapy dogs.
How training a therapy dog benefits seniors
Training a therapy dog does require some work, but there are a number of reasons that the effort can really pay off for many seniors.
- It’s a great bonding experience for you and your pet.
Training is one of the best ways to seal the bond between you and your dog. Part of the training process for therapy dogs is teaching your dog to look to you for guidance and take your lead. Therapy dog training specifically teaches them to do that within the particular contexts you’ll be taking them into for therapy purposes, but the connection continues beyond the hospital or nursing home walls.
- It gives you a reason to get out of the house and be active each day.
Seniors are at a real risk of a number of dangers associated with loneliness and inactivity, especially once they reach the age when they can no longer safely drive. Training a therapy dog gives them a class to go to with some regularity, a training routine to keep up with, and new places to go with their dog once the class is complete.
A senior with a therapy dog is far less likely to stay stuck in the house all day. They have a purpose and reason to get out and do something every day.
- The classes provide a social opportunity.
The therapy dog classes will include a number of people of all ages training their therapy dogs. You’ll be able to meet new people who have a common interest and may even get some new friends out of the experience.
Once your dog graduates, you’ll have even more opportunities to meet patients in hospitals and residents in senior living facilities, always with your dog as an easy conversation starter to get friendships going.
If you’ve been feeling the lack of opportunities to socialize with new people since beginning your retirement, training and owning a therapy dog can quickly help fill in that gap.
- It provides a sense of purpose.
For many people, the feeling that you’re contributing to something meaningful is an important part of believing your life has a purpose. A senior that spends all day at home and sees friends and family infrequently may have a hard time figuring out what their contribution to the world is. A senior that has a therapy dog they care about and must take care of every day – a dog they then get to watch brighten the lives of kids and other seniors regularly – won’t have cause to question how they’re making the world a little better, the looks on the faces of the patients and residents will make it clear.
- You can help other seniors, as well as other people who are ill, by bringing the joy a pet brings into their life.
If you had to spend months in a nursing home or hospital, wouldn’t seeing a fluffy dog come flouncing up to offer you love make a difference in your experience of the day? We may all face a period of time where we’re stuck somewhere institutional we’d rather not be and we can only hope someone kind brings a therapy dog into our life at that time.
You can be that person now to many people who are having a rough time and could really benefit from a few hours with a loving canine.
A therapy dog both provides retirees with a constant companion who provides love throughout the day at home, and a chance to see their beloved pet make a difference in the lives of those who could use a mental boost. The benefits are many, so consider if training a therapy dog in your retirement years is the right choice for you.