“Career Change” is a term used in the working dog world to reference when a dog has ultimately chosen a different career path. For instance, some service dogs in training find that they are better suited for explosives detection, therapy work, or even the pet life.
If you’ve followed along on Pinella’s journey thus far, you already know that, just shy of her first birthday, she chose to pursue the pet life. It was her choice. She told us through her behaviors and temperament that she preferred to live a calming, playful, and relaxing pet life. Although it was heartbreaking for her to be discharged from service work, I now have the clarity to recognize that this was a necessary component of her journey.
Following her release from Susquehanna Service Dogs, our training efforts naturally decreased. Through this experience, however, I became attuned to a key quality of Pinella — She loves to work! Pinella demonstrated excitement at the sight of her clicker and treats. She seemed to really enjoy the mental stimulation she gained from practicing her cues in pet-friendly stores and getting treated for loose leash leisure walks. Her companionship was second to none and something I truly wished more people had an opportunity to experience. I observed these traits for a year or so and did my very best to give her a healthy combination of “pet life” and “working life/training.”
Pet Therapy at a Glance
Pet Therapy is an animal-assisted intervention that I’ve always had a keen interest in. Much of this interest derived from my own experiences with the healing power of the human-animal bond. If you’ve ever had a pet, you, too, have likely experienced the therapeutic role that interacting with an animal can have. While pet therapy can be as informal as interacting with your pet, it also involves more formal, structured interactions.
“Animal-assisted interventions are goal oriented and structured interventions that intentionally incorporate animals in health, education and human service for the purpose of therapeutic gains and improved health and wellness.”
(Pet Partners, 2020)
Pet Partners (2020) acknowledges pet therapy as an animal-assisted intervention aimed at providing comfort and healing to individuals in a variety of settings. Examples include, but are not limited to, hospitals, advocacy centers, schools/universities, assisted-living facilities, mental health facilities, as well as libraries. Pet therapy affords people with an opportunity to focus on the animal/animal’s handler as opposed to the ongoing stressors that might be occurring in their life. This might take the form of petting the animal and talking to the animal’s handler, for example. It has also been suggested that therapy dogs can aide in improving children’s literacy skills by having them read to the nonjudgmental dog. Lastly, therapy dogs are often involved in crisis response and have served on the frontlines during national crises, such as 9/11, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting, and even the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Rewind: October 2019
Reflecting back on Pinella’s desire to live the pet life, coupled with her innate love for working, I anticipated that pet therapy would be a suitable fit for her. It was also encouraging to know that Pinella’s sister, Syrah, had already made the transition from service-dog-in-training to therapy dog. In October 2019, I reached out to Syrah’s handler and asked for mentorship and guidance through navigating the pet therapy world. Together, we did several pet therapy trial visits at a local nursing home. Much of our experience at the nursing home involved allowing residents to pet Pinella while simultaneously reminiscing with them about pets they’ve owned throughout their lifetime. It was a unique and memorable experience to watch Pinella work side-by-side with her sister to learn how to be a comforting companion and eager therapy dog.
Following these trial visits, it was important to have her undergo formal evaluation and observation to ensure that she met the necessary qualifications to be a therapy dog (i.e., a calm temperament, obedience skills, behavioral training). We pursued certification through Alliance of Therapy Dogs, which involved an initial oral examination as well as three tests/observations of Pinella. She demonstrated excellence throughout these observations and gained official certification as a therapy dog in January 2020! In addition to accruing a certification, she was also accepted into a local airport therapy dog program! Here, she visits with nervous passengers awaiting their flights and works to calm their anxieties merely with her presence.
We have had to put a pause on therapy visits due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; however, we are eager to resume once it is deemed safe to do so! This new career as a therapy dog appears to satisfy Pinella’s desires to not only be a pet, but also work. It seemed appropriate to announce Pinella’s newly-granted certification as a therapy dog today in honor of National Therapy Animal Day!
Pet therapy is a fulfilling volunteer experience that I recommend to anyone who feels their pet might be a suitable match for therapy work. I’ve included resources below from well-known, reputable therapy animal organizations. If you’re interested in learning more about the handler and animal qualifications necessary to pursue pet therapy, these are great resources to start with. Just as Syrah’s handler did for me, I am happy to answer any questions you may have and help guide you through the process if/when you ever feel like this might be an appropriate endeavor for you and your furry companion!
- Pet Partners: https://petpartners.org/
- Therapy Dogs International: https://tdi-dog.org/default.aspx
- Alliance of Therapy Dogs: https://www.therapydogs.com/
Until next time,
Pet Partners. (2020). How our program is different. Pet Partners. https://petpartners.org/about-us/our-programs-different/