- Screening and assessing therapy dog-handler teams is critical to success.
- Therapy dogs are intuitive and must be given the freedom to act on their intuition.
- Therapy dogs pick up on the emotional needs of humans.
As someone who works with therapy dogs and typically leaves work covered in dog hair, I know the importance of having well-trained dogs working in public spaces. Moreover, I’ve learned the importance of screening and assessing both the dog and the handler for work in therapy dog programming.
In fact, along with Dr. Elizabeth Kjellstrand Hartwig of Texas State University, I wrote a book about it. Failing to comprehensively assess dog-handler teams results in dogs that are ill-suited to the demands asked of them in busy public contexts supporting varied human clients. Handlers, too, must be vetted to ensure they understand that they are volunteers facilitating interactions between their dog and the public—not therapists offering solutions to individuals struggling with mental health challenges.
Therapy dogs often elicit strong emotional reactions in visitors. Strong handlers recognize when visitors require additional support and can redirect them to formal, mental health resources. Such is often the case in on-campus canine-assisted interventions or stress-reduction programs, where students may require additional mental health support and can be redirected to campus student support services.
Despite writing about and arguing for the comprehensive screening and training of dog-handler teams, I also recognize the importance of not overmanaging therapy dogs. Dogs, and therapy dogs in particular, are intuitive, picking up on the emotional needs of humans. The overmanaged dog, kept on a tight leash, is prevented from acting on such intuition.
Therapy dogs do good work when given the freedom to intuitively respond to those around them.
Weaving through a crowd
Craig is a three-legged rescue who is often by my side when I give presentations. Craig has especially strong intuitive instincts. Once, while presenting to over 60 ninth-grade students in a local middle school, Craig left the front where I was standing, wove his way through the crowd, and laid his head on the lap of a student not known for sitting attentively through presentations. The student’s teacher was struck by the calming effect of Craig on the student. Here we see a dog acting on intuition, finding his way to someone who needed him.
Not following the pack
It’s not uncommon for me to be seen with several dogs in tow as I make my way across campus. On this particular day, I found myself in the elevator heading up to my office one dog short. Peering out of the elevator, I see one of the dogs has chosen not to follow the pack into the elevator and instead has veered off course to support a student.
The student in question, an engineering student feeling the pressures of his coursework and pending exams, was seated hunched over Craig, tears spilling onto Craig’s coat. This is a particularly salient example of a therapy dog following intuition, eschewing the pull to follow the pack and, rather, acting on his intuition to support a student in need of some emotional support.
You too have borne witness to examples of therapy dogs acting on intuition. I’d be curious to hear of such examples as we build our understanding of dogs reacting intuitively to the emotional needs of the humans around them.
Binfet, J. T. & Hartwig, E. (2020). Canine-assisted interventions: A comprehensive guide to credentialing therapy dog teams. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429436055