Size matters. Although many large breed owners might disagree, generally nursing homes prefer dogs that fit into laps or whose size won’t disturb the steady traffic of family, aides, physical therapists, nurses, etc., at the facility. Think 50 pounds maximum. However, small dogs are not always great therapy dogs. They need good impulse control and must remain still and calm during handling.
Breed matters. It shouldn’t, but therapy dogs need insurance, and the feelings of some residents must also be respected. Some people are afraid of big dogs, or certain breeds of dogs. Breed restrictions often apply to German Shepherds, Dobermans, and American Staffordshire Terriers.
Personality plus – but not out of control. Therapy dogs should be friendly and enjoy being touched all over, regardless of grip or pressure. Residents may have an unsteady grasp, shake, or shoulder injuries. Good therapy dogs relax on the lap or lean into a wheelchair. They should demonstrate friendliness without jumping and – in many cases – without licking.
Housetraining and grooming. Therapy dogs must not eliminate in the residence. They must be freshly bathed; their nails are kept short. Senior skin is thin and bruises and bleeds easily.
Age. Therapy dogs are at least one year of age. Although puppies are adorable and entertaining, they have sharp teeth and nails and are not reliably housetrained.
Responsive to training. Therapy dogs need these basics: walking on a leash without pulling, sit, down/stay, leave it, polite greetings, and touch/target. They should perform basic obedience when asked and work without food. (Many therapy dog organizations do not permit the use of food.)
Resilient. Nursing homes are just like life — sometimes loud, sometimes quiet. Equipment or personal items fall to the floor; people yell; somebody’s TV is turned way up; a church service is underway. The halls are rarely empty; residents who need immediate supervision may line the perimeter of a nursing station. The physical therapy area is full of people exercising, talking, and coming and going. Dogs may encounter double swinging doors, ramps, oxygen pumps, gurneys, wheelchairs, walkers, and canes.
People-oriented. Therapy dogs are more interested in people than the environment. A Leave It is easy for them because they would rather greet the person who dropped his medication than gobble up his pills.
Discreet. Nursing homes are full of diapers, urine stains, juice dribbles and spilled food, hand lotion, and other smells that appeal to the canine olfactory system. Enough said.
Bombproof. For both handler and dog, a therapy dog visit means stress. Good stress, but the kind that is born of empathy, awareness, and what it feels like to get a good dose of the irrational spectacle of our own mortality. Residents may be confused, kind, angry, upset, fascinating, and sad. Dogs may be asked to greet 20-30 people in an hour. Entire families may line up for a greeting and cheer when the dog enters a room. A good therapy dog absorbs the stress, plus yours – and remains at his best.