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Pet pleasures: proper etiquette with therapy dogs and other furry friends.

I remember it vividly: an Australian shepherd, Dax, leaning close to a resident putting her head on the resident's leg as he stroked the dog's head and rubbed her ears. As he touched her ears, he smiled. When the dog pushed closer to him, he laughed; "She likes me."

Pets, simply put, are good for us. Contact with friendly animals lowers blood pressure; helps people heal from illness, injury, and surgery; provides love and affection; and helps people maintain contact with reality.

Unfortunately, this contact, by the nature of what it is--interaction with animals--can also have hazards. If you allow therapeutic pet visits in your long-term care facility, you need to take a few steps to protect your residents.

Rule #1: Allow only certified pets.

The majority of therapy animals are dogs. Any animal, no matter how well trained, evaluated, and screened, can be unpredictable. A dog's hard claws can scratch fragile skin, and an otherwise friendly bird can peck if frightened. However, if you choose the pets used for pet therapy wisely and evaluate them thoroughly, these incidents should be minimal, if any.

There are three major organizations that evaluate therapy pets. The Delta Society ( and the Foundation for Pet Provided Therapy ( evaluate and certify dogs, cats, and other pets. Therapy Dog International ( certifies only dogs.

Although each of these organizations has its own program for evaluating pets, they are all excellent at weeding out those pets that should not be involved in this activity. These organizations are also notable because they provide insurance for their members.

When looking for therapy pets to visit your facility, don't be afraid to ask questions and check the pet's certification paperwork. Anyone can say his or her pet is a therapy pet, but only those with certified pets can produce certification papers, insurance, and identification. Make copies of this paperwork for your files in case there is a problem later.

Some facilities allow family pets--primarily dogs--to visit. Although this can create a warm, family feeling, it can also be dangerous. Few family dogs have received the level of training that therapy dogs have, and most owners do not control the dogs as they should in such a fragile setting. Family pets, if allowed, should visit their family member only and must go directly to his or her room.

Rule #2: Know what to expect with a therapy dog.

The therapy dog should arrive for a visit clean, recently bathed, well brushed, and free from fleas and ticks. The dog should be wearing the vest or bandanna of the certifying group, and the owner must have the dog's identification. It must be understood that the dog will always be on leash and under control.

Different facilities have their own routines for therapy dog visits, but in general there are two types of visits: group or individual. Group visits may take place in the lobby, a recreation room, or another room large enough for several people to gather. The dog and owner may visit with the group at large, with the dog showing off its obedience commands or doing some tricks.

Individual visits usually take place in residents' rooms. The dog and owners greet each person, spend a few minutes conversing, and then allow the residents to pet the dog before moving on to the next room.

These visits can be more effective if the volunteer coordinator or activities director does some homework first. Find out the following:

* Which residents are allergic to dogs or other pets and therefore should not be visited

* Who doesn't like pets, who is afraid of them, or who feels pets belong outside

* Which residents actually want to see the pets

When the therapy dog shows up, the volunteer coordinator or activities director can then hand the dog owner the two lists--which residents want to be visited, and which do not--or can accompany the dog and dog owner, making sure they see those who wish to have a visit and avoid those who don't.

Rule #3: Keep pets safe.

Safety during therapy pet visits works two ways: safety of the resident during visits and safety of the pet during visits. Far too many pets have been injured during visits, often ending their careers as therapy pets.

The therapy pet should never be left unattended during a visit with a resident. If the pet owner needs to visit the restroom, the pet should go with him or her.

When the pet is with a resident, the volunteer coordinator or other staff member should not try to engage the pet owner in conversation. He or she needs to pay attention to the resident and the pet.

During the pet visits, a staff member should be within calling distance should the pet owner need help. Staff members should help when needed. Unfortunately, in my experience, pet owners often need help, such as when a resident grabs a dog and refuses to let go, and the staff members respond, "It's not my job."

Residents known to be violent, such as those prone to kicking, hitting, grabbing, spitting, or screaming, should either be off the visiting list or should be visited only by large, calm, extremely tolerant dogs. The owner should know ahead of time the type of behavior the resident is known to display and how to watch for the signs of agitation.

With some precautions taken, therapy pet visits are good for everyone involved. Residents enjoy the change in routine and the visit from therapy pets and their owners. The families of residents know the facility cares enough about their family members to take the extra steps to bring these pets in for visits. And the staff gets a break and a chance to pet a warm, loving dog or other animal. It's a win for all.

Time to leave

Most therapy dog and other pet owners are extremely responsible and take pet therapy visits seriously. However, if a therapy dog shows up to visit and you feel uncomfortable about it, you have every right to ask the dog owner to take the animal home.

Dogs should not visit if they are dirty, wet, or scratching as though they have fleas or skin problems. Pets also should not visit if they are sick: Send home any animal that appears to be coughing, sneezing, or showing other signs of illness.

Dogs should always be on leash and under excellent control. If a dog is out of control, send it home. If the dog is too excited, it might need to go outside to calm down before coming back inside. If a dog shows any signs of aggression, such as growling, snarling, barking, or lunging, it needs to leave. If a cat, rabbit, ferret, or bird appears too stressed, that animal also needs to leave.--Liz Palika

Liz Palika has been involved with therapy pet visits for more than 20 years. She presently visits a day care center for high-risk children with her dog Riker, and an Alzheimer's facility with her youngest dog, Bashir. Liz is also the founder of The Foundation for Pet Provided Therapy. Contact her at
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Author:Palika, Liz
Publication:Contemporary Long Term Care
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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