Tips For Starting A Therapy Dog Program In Your Facility

As most of my regular readers know, my Siberian Husky Icy and I are a Therapy Dog team.  We've been volunteering as an animal therapy team since 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona and across Long Island, New York.  There is nothing I love more than giving back to my community with my dog by my side! It's the most rewarding thing I've ever done.

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Icy waiting for the reading to dogs program at the library to start

Over the years I have learned a lot about how to successfully manage a facility therapy dog program in libraries and schools.  I'd like to share my personal insights to help both people who run therapy dog programs, or plan to start one, and for people whose children may benefit from a therapy animal program.

THERAPY DOGS IN LIBRARIES AND SCHOOLS

I have visited many libraries and schools and they are all run differently.  Most animal therapy organizations allow their member facilities to run their programs in the way that best suits them and their customers. The guidelines facilities must follow to remain in compliance usually don't include guidelines around the physical space they chooses to use for the program, or exactly how they manage the animal therapy visits.  That is both good and bad. 

It's nice to have the flexibility to manage the program in the way that best meets the needs of their participants, but some facilities do a better job of making pet therapy visits more enjoyable and effective.  Let me share some examples and tips with you.

SOME FACILITIES RUN PET THERAPY PROGRAMS BETTER THAN OTHERS


One of my favorite visits (and Icy's too!) is the Reading To Dogs programs at the library.  During these visits children read out loud to dogs, which gives them  an opportunity to practice their reading and improve reading skills in a safe, non-judgmental environment.  I'm not grading or correcting them and Icy doesn't care how well they read, as long as they'll give her a few pets and maybe a belly rub! Learn more about Reading To Dogs programs for kids in this earlier post.

At one of the libraries we visited in Phoenix, the program was very unstructured.  We showed up with our dogs, signed in, and were told to "just find a place to sit and we'll send the kids to you".  If you've ever seen a dog in a library, you know how excited kids get when they see a dog there. They can't help themselves, they invariably come rushing over to pet the dog and start asking questions.  They are oblivious to the fact that you're conducting a therapy dog reading session. 

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One of my favorite photos of Icy  reading with one of the kids at the library.  She looks so interested in doesn't she?!

One day Icy and I arrived at the library and found a tiny corner. The first child sat down to read to Icy but almost immediately, another kid came running over, excitedly yelling, and plopped down to pet Icy and begin asking questions about her.  Needless to say, the child that was reading to Icy was very put off and he immediately shut down.  The second kid's grandparent came over but seemed oblivious to the fact that this was a one on one reading session.  I finally had to gently suggest that he come back after the first child was done reading.

There wasn't a library staff in sight to oversee the program or help in any way. I went to this library twice before I became discouraged and never returned.  This type of environment puts the therapy dog handler and the kids who want to read in an awkward position.  It's not a pleasant or effective experience.

At another Phoenix library it was a totally different story.  Their program was perfectly executed and managed.  This library was a joy to be a part of and I continued my visits for a couple of years.  I left only because we moved out of state.  They did so many things right:

🐶 They had a separate room for the visits and set it up perfectly.  There were no more than 3 dogs at any one time and the sessions were one child at a time reading to a dog.  For kids who struggle with reading, group reading sessions can be stressful and unpleasant, lowering their confidence.  Here, each child had one on one time to read and interact with the dog in a non stressful environment.

🐶 Kids signed up in advance for the program and waited outside the room for their turn to read.  No other kids interrupting or making the child uncomfortable.

🐶 At the end of their 15 minute reading session, the child was given a lovely printed certificate that said "I read with Icy today!" The kids loved the certificates, it gave them a sense of accomplishment and pride.

🐶 They didn't allow therapy dog handlers to give out candy or other edibles to the children, which is smart.  Sticky fingers and books are not a good combination! Parents also don't appreciate their kids being randomly given sweets or other foods in the middle of the day.  They did allow us to give out stickers, which the kids loved.  One or two fun stickers for each child adds a nice touch and feeling of pride and accomplishment to a therapy dog visit. 

🐶 They Paid Attention!  If kids started entering the room, crowding a dog, or squealing in high pitch tones they stepped in.  They didn't just leave the handlers alone to supervise the groups of children who participate in the program.   The handler's responsibility is to their dog. They shouldn't be left to their own devices to manage groups of children in a facility.

🐶 They had books available for the children to select to read. They also obtained input from local elementary schools on books that should be offered. 

I miss that library and their staff so much!  Of the many libraries we've visited as a therapy dog team, that one was my favorite.

MORE TIPS TO RUN YOUR THERAPY DOG PROGRAM WELL


🐾 Ensure therapy dog handlers don't bring any dog treats or food that contains nuts.  Dogs love peanut butter treats but they should be left at home. There are so many kids with nut allergies!

🐾 Always have someone manage both the participant's signup process and the room.  Don't let kids just walk in and sit down.  Explain to a parent or guardian what the program is, how it works, and ask them to sign up.

🐾 Manage the visits!  Be there to support the therapy dogs and their handlers, who are volunteering their time to help you and the kids at your facility.  If a child starts crying uncontrollably, becomes frightened of the dog, wanders out of the room, or acts out please step in to help.  It's unfair to leave therapy dog handlers to be responsible for a child that wanders off or to handle behavioral issues. 

🐾 Remember that the handler's first responsibility is to their DOG.  They will explain to a child how to best pet and interact with their individual dog, and they will help a child with a word or sentence if they need it but they are not teachers or babysitters. I have seen parents drop their kids off to read to the therapy dogs at the library and not return for well over an hour!

🐾  Have a cart or table with a large variety of books available for the kids to read. Many times a child selects a book that is either way above or below their level, or they just don't like the book they chose.  When they have to run out of the room and search the shelves for another book, they run out of time.  Have plenty of books to choose from within easy reach.

🐾 Try to limit therapy team visits to one hour, and kids' reading sessions to approx. 15 minutes per child.  Most dogs become tired or need a break after an hour. Being a therapy dog is very mentally stimulating for the dog and they can get tired, or sometimes they've just had enough.  If a handler feels the need to leave early or give the dog a break by leaving the room or walking outside, please respect that.  The handler's biggest responsibility is to advocate for their dog. Part of that is to know when their dog is becoming stressed or has had enough.  Just like people, dogs have good days and bad days. Please don't be offended!

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Another adorable photo of Icy reading with a child.  I get a kick out of her putting her paw on the book!

I hope you have found these tips helpful.  By following these tips your pet therapy program should run smoothly for everyone!

Have you ever run or participated in a therapy animal program?  Please tell us what your experience was like in the comments!

Pet Dental Health Made Easy

Lack of oral care in dogs can lead to dental disease, which in turn can lead to more serious health issues.  Good oral health for dogs (cats too!) goes beyond just whiter teeth and fresh breath, it's important to your dog's overall health as well. 

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), 80% of dogs have some form of periodontal disease by the age of 3!  That number for cats is not much better, at 70%. 


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Good oral hygiene in dogs can help prevent dental disease.

Poor Dental Health Can Negatively Effect A Pet's Overall Health



Periodontal Disease can lead to even more serious health problems.   Toxins from periodontal disease get absorbed into the dog's blood stream and can cause infections in the body.  This can potentially damage kidney, liver, heart, and brain tissue.


This post is sponsored by Zymox. I am being compensated to help share information about Oratene® Brushless Pet Oral Care products. We only share information we feel is helpful and relevant to our readers.


Pets taking medications are especially prone to dental health issues.  

Many pets taking medication can experience a change in the quality of saliva.  Although pets may still have saliva and drool, this condition is called "Dry Mouth".  Pets with chronic Dry Mouth develop severe halitosis (bad breath), and accumulate plaque which can lead to tartar and tooth decay. 

Oratene's line of Brushless Pet Oral Health Products kill harmful bacteria and germs, and remove plaque biofilm in your dog's mouth.  

Tartar can throw off the balance of normal, healthy microbial flora in a dog's mouth. Oratene Brushless Oral Care products break down plaque and biofilm, and specifically target the harmful bacteria and microorganisms in the mouth. They help maintain a healthy oral ecology, and freshen your dog's breath.

Oratene products are especially beneficial for senior pets, pets with special health conditions like Diabetes, and pets who are taking medications for behavior, pain, allergies, heart problems, thyroid dysfunction, or urinary incontinence.  


One of the products in their line of pet dental care products is the Oratene Brushless Oral Care Water Additive.  It's a flavorless concentrate you add to your pet's water each day that provides a safe, healthy way to conveniently keep teeth clean without brushing!





Just add two pumps of Water Additive to 4 cups of water daily.

Dogs' teeth need attention in order to  prevent plaque from hardening and turning into tartar on the teeth.  Although brushing your dog's teeth every day is ideal to ensure good oral hygiene and ward off dental disease, not everyone can commit to that.  And many pets, if they're like my dogs Icy and Phoebe, will not tolerate a toothbrush in their mouth!  Believe me I've tried but it's just not feasible for us.  I use 
Oratene Brushless Oral Care Water Additive in their water and Oratene Brushless Oral Care Toothpaste Gel to keep my dogs' teeth clean and healthy.  Yes, I said BRUSHLESS!  These videos show you how easy it is to use both the water additive and the toothpaste gel.





Although my dogs don't take medication and don't have "Dry Mouth", they are both 9 years old and have shown signs of deteriorating dental health.  I've been using Oratene water additive and Oratene brushless toothpaste for a year or so and it's been really helpful.  Trying to brush Icy and Phoebe's teeth was just not working, but these products are effective, easy and convenient to use, and my dogs don't mind them at all, which is half the battle! 


NoteAccording to Oratene, the Water Additive can be used with a pet water fountain however "the filter MUST be taken out or it will remove the active compounds and it will plug up the filter."



HOW DO ORATENE BRUSHLESS ORAL CARE PRODUCTS FOR PETS WORK?


> Oratene brushless pet oral care products contain two patented, natural enzyme systems, the LP3 Enzyme System and the MD2 Enzyme System(Mutanase + Dextranase).  

> These enzymes inhibit harmful odor-causing bacteria and remove plaque biofilm.  The LP3 Enzyme System destroys bacteria and fungal microorganisms while restoring the oral balance in a pet's mouth.  The MD2 Enzyme System makes plaque water soluble and unable to bind to the teeth.


> Oratene oral care products do NOT contain CHLORHEXIDINE, XYLITOL, ALCOHOL, OR CHLORINE COMPOUNDS, so it's safe for dogs and cats to use daily!



***** Never use Human toothpaste on your dog or cat, it contains ingredients that are toxic to pets! *****

Symptoms to watch out for that could indicate poor dental hygiene in dogs:


Broken or loose teeth
 Teeth that are discolored or covered in tartar
 Abnormal chewing
 Excessive drooling
 Dropping their food, appearing hungry but will not eat
 Pain or bleeding from the mouth
 Swelling around the mouth


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FEBRUARY IS NATIONAL PET DENTAL HEALTH MONTH! 


We should always keep our pets dental health top of mind but National Pet Dental Health Month, Sponsored by the AVMA, helps raise awareness of the significance of oral healthcare for pets.


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You may also want to try Zymox Itch Relief Shampoo & Conditioning Rinse to calm and sooth itchy skin.