Wanted: Sweet, calm, patient dogs to comfort humans

Ninety-five percent of therapy animals with one group that oversees 11,000 teams in 14 countries are dogs, but not all dogs are right for the job. Animals that comfort people in times of illness or trauma must be calm amid sometimes chaotic situations. Desensitization, training and certification are important steps for the owner and animal in the process of becoming a therapy team

By Associated Press,

Feb 05, 2013 06:30 PM EST

APPublished: February 5

PHOENIX — The children buzz in excitement, boisterous and barging in, their little hands covering seemingly every part of the Australian shepherd’s body.

Callie doesn’t flinch, calmly lying at the center of this circle of chaos, lightly panting with what appears to be a smile.

 Dogs don’t really smile, but this one sure was at ease.

“She loves the attention,” Callie’s handler Jeanette Wood said during the visit to the Child Crisis Center in Phoenix. “She eats this stuff up.”

Callie makes calm amid the clutter look easy, but it’s not.

Being a therapy dog — or cat or horse or whatever — like Callie takes a special kind of animal, one with just the right temperament and personality. It also takes training, not just for the animal, but for the handler.

“You have to be a certain kind of person and have a certain kind of dog to do this,” said Pam Gaber, founder of Gabriel’s Angels, an Arizona-based nonprofit that delivers pet therapy to abused and at-risk children.

Therapy animals are used at hospitals, nursing homes, schools, rehabilitation centers, institutions and in one-on-one sessions with therapists. They also have been brought in to comfort victims of mass-casualty events, including the Newtown, Conn., school shooting and the Tucson shooting that targeted former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

They come from a wide range of species, from cats and rabbits to barnyard varieties like horses, goats and pigs. Exotic birds, hamsters and Guinea pigs, even llamas and alpacas also have been used to comfort people of all ages.

The most popular and recognizable therapy animals, not surprisingly, are dogs. And it’s not even close.

Pet Partners, a nonprofit organization that promotes positive animal interactions as a therapeutic resource, has 11,000 therapy teams in 14 countries and 95 percent of their animals are dogs.

“Dogs are social by nature, but they’re also accustomed to going with us, going out and meeting people,” Bill Kueser, vice president of marketing for Pet Partners, based in Bellevue, Wash. “We take them on walks, we go with them to the pet store to get dog food. We integrate them in our lives in sort of a wider spectrum of activities than other pets and species are integrated.”

A wide variety of breeds is used. Gabriel’s Angels, which serves 13,000 children in Phoenix and Tucson, has everything from a 4-pound Chihuahua to a 190-pound English mastiff, though most of its animals are golden retrievers, labs or a mix with either breed.

But not every dog is suitable for therapy.

The key is temperament. Therapy dogs need to be relatively even-keeled and enjoy being around people.

If a dog cowers around new people, is too timid or overbearing, or gets jumpy when there’s a lot of commotion, it probably won’t be a good fit as a therapy dog.

“Sometimes the person wants it more than the dog,” said Gaber, who started Gabriel’s Angels after taking her Weimaraner, Gabriel, to the Crisis Nursery in Phoenix in 2000. “If they’re in the corner cowering, let them stay home and sleep on your bed during the day if that’s what they want.”

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