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by Jerry Weichman
Therapy dogs are becoming a more common sight in nursing homes, schools and hospitals. When my dog Raj, a certified therapy dog, wears his service dog vest, he knows it's time to make people happy, and he likes getting right down to business. I can tell because he shifts from being a high-energy Mini Aussie to Mr. Mellow.
When we enter a hospital or a similar environment, I go to patients and ask them if they would like a visit with Raj. It's fantastic to see the patients perk up when they see him. It is just remarkable to see how just a few minutes spent with an affectionate therapy dog can bring such comfort and happiness to a person. Patients love Raj, and he loves his work!
How and Why Therapy Dogs Work
Raj stays by my side until the patient invites him to his or her side. Then he goes right over and lies next to them. As the patients begin the therapy, they often focus on Raj, or even sort of unconsciously pet him throughout the entire session. Raj is nonjudgmental and nonthreatening, and he serves as a great icebreaker when I meet new people who are not looking forward to the therapeutic experience. His bright eyes and cold nose are psychiatric tools in disguise, and I don't think my work would be as effective without his help.
I think the positive impact a therapy dog can have is tough to measure in clinical terms, but you know it when you see it. I have personally experienced many occasions when a patient is feeling especially defeated, depressed or withdrawn, but seems to open up and want to connect with Raj when he walks through the door. Perhaps it is because a therapy dog doesn't ask for anything from a patient other than kindness. Or, it might just be that a therapy dog provides a needed distraction.
Can Your Pal Be a Therapy Dog?
If your dog has a loving personality, enjoys being around people of all ages, is not frightened by wheelchairs or hospital environments, and responds to commands without hesitation, then he might be a good therapy dog. You can contact organizations such as Therapy Dogs International or Pet Partners to see if your dog meets their criteria. They have very stringent and thorough evaluation programs and will tell you if your dog has what it takes.
As a doctor, it's rewarding to make a difference in someone's day and to spend every workday with my very loyal, very hairy best friend!
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