A trained, socialized dog is a happy dog, vets and trainers say, so by the same rule a therapy dog must be even happier, right?
Dr. Sandra Barker, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, notes that the 40 dogs who visit patients in the VCU Health System are already good-tempered, predictable and well-socialized. Therapy dogs, which are certified by the Delta Society before being allowed in hospital rooms, must be under the full control of their owners and must not be easily startled.
All breeds and sizes participate, from Great Danes to Chihuahuas, and "the dogs seem to know the patients that need their presence," Barker says. "They seem to have that sixth sense."
VCU's Dogs on Call program started in the mid-1990s, providing comfort and fun to patients of all ages. Dogs and their owners begin the process with supervised visits, and eventually dog-and-human teams can come to the hospital on their own. Patients often relax around the dogs, sometimes dramatically lowering tension, according to Barker's published studies.
Her 10-year-old champion Lhasa Apso, High Anxiety (nicknamed H.I.), used to be a therapy dog and would cheer up as soon as he put on his halter, knowing that it meant he would be "going to work," Barker says. No studies have been conducted on whether therapy dogs live longer, but anecdotally, the VCU dogs appear to thrive on the attention.
Barker notes: "They come in with their tail wagging, and they leave with their tail wagging."
Other hospitals across the Richmond area host therapy dogs too.
St. Francis Medical Center, as you'd expect from the name, is a dog-friendly facility and has three or four teams from Caring Canines (caringk9.com) that pay weekly visits to patients who request the service. St. Mary's Hospital and Memorial Regional Medical Center also offer pet therapy. CJW Johnston-Willis and Chippenham hospitals invite Canine Companions for Independence into certain wards. And the Westminster Canterbury retirement community has a live-in "therapy bunny" named Buster.
To find out more about volunteering with your dog at VCU, call 828-PAWS or visit chai.vcu.edu.