Several days back, Tucker's mommy commented on a post asking me to explain the process of becoming a registered therapy dog. So in light of Nugget having completed his final observation this afternoon (HOORAY!), I will explain.
A friend of mine from our local Golden rescue, Golden Retriever Rescue Club of Charlotte, recommended Therapy Dogs, Inc. to us. This is a national organization and they've been around since 1990. To date, they've registered more than 11,000 therapy dog teams.
A good first step would be to explore their website through the link I provided above. They have a lot of great resources and information about what it takes to become registered. You can download and print all of the testing forms and observation forms you'll need to have filled out so you'll know exactly what the tester/observers will the judging you on. Their application and release forms are also available on the website. Submit your name to receive information and within hours, you will have an email which lists every tester/observer in your state.
So here is how it works: A therapy dog team consists of you and your dog - that's right, you both get registered together. You (human) are known as the handler. Any dog can have more than one handler, as B and I have done. I believe there's an additional $10 registration fee for each handler beyond one. Each handler has to test and observe with the dog individually.
After you receive the list of Therapy Dog Inc. tester/observers in your state, chose one local to you to contact. Fortunately, there are four of them here in the Charlotte area and they all work together. They also share a common calendar, so each of them knows what the other is doing and when. You will typically meet with a tester/observer about 15 minutes prior to one of their regularly scheduled therapy dog visits. Your first encounter with them will include a short "test" of you and your dog. He/she will grade (pass/fail) on how well your dog walks on a leash; how well your dog listens to you when you give commands; how your dog interacts when being approached by strangers; how your dog interacts when approaching a stranger with you; how your dog reacts to loud noises, someone running past them, etc (distractions). The tester/observer will also watch your dog's overall demeanor and personality looking for red flags such as jumping up, cowarding, growling, aggression, etc. (Let's be honest, if your dog does any of those things, you wouldn't be wasting the time or embarrassing yourself by going through this just yet).
After the test, you'll head inside the facility with your tester/observer who will likely have their own dog in tow and there will probably be a few other already-registered therapy dogs or others in process of becoming registered like you. Following the tester/observer's lead, and depending on the facility, you'll either go from room to room asking residents if they'd like to visit or you'll enter different common areas to interact with the residents there. Your tester/observer will look again for how your dog interacts with strangers, if he/she seems to be enjoying the visit and overall whether you make a good team in that setting. These visits generally last no more than an hour. The dogs get tired, the residents get tired and an hour is the perfect amount of time to make your rounds through the entire facility.
Once you've been through the facility with your dog, the tester/observer will complete your observation paperwork for that day and you'll be finished.
In total, you will complete one test and three observations per dog, per handler. B and I were able to complete observations at the same time, however, as most tester/observers will allow you to split the visit hour between two handlers.
You don't have to complete all three observations with the same tester/observer. As long as you find someone who is a registered tester/observer through Therapy Dogs, Inc., you can complete those observations with anyone, anywhere.
There are several national organizations out there who will register your dog as a therapy dog. A few things I liked about Therapy Dogs, Inc. was the cost - $35 to register a dog with one handler, $10 for an additional handler - for the entire year. No money is due up front. You wait until you've completed all of your requirements and then you send a check with your paperwork. Also, they have many tester/observers in each state. You'll won't be confined to one person's schedule. Additionally, to maintain your registration, you must only complete a minimum of 4 therapy dog visits per year. (I've heard other organizations require as many as 8 hours per MONTH to maintain registration - who has time for that?!).
In addition to the test and observation forms, you'll fill out an application which your vet must sign (to verify your dog is UTD on all shots, etc.). You'll sign a release form and be asked for copies of your dog's proof of rabies vaccination. Once everything is completed, you'll mail it all off to the Therapy Dogs, Inc office with your payment and in a few short days, your proud canine companion will be donning the red "I'm a Therapy Dog" heart shaped tag on his or her collar. Such a proud moment :)
If you are at all considering this and have even the slightest bit of doubt, please contact me before you rule it out completely. Admittedly, Nugget is not the best behaved dog since he's had no formal obedience training. (I trained him myself and I'm a COMPLETE amateur!). A few remarks we got on our observations included leash-pulling and barking. We still passed everything. These people all love dogs and all own dogs. They know you'll have the occasional barking outburst or the dog will be a little excited in new environments, etc. (Today I was mortified because Nugget was totally not into it. He was more interested in laying on the floor than having people pet him - and we still passed!). Definitely give it a shot! The dogs really do enjoy the love and attention and the residents in nursing homes or rehab/assisted living facilities absolutely love the visits! They are so appreciative and thank us endlessly for coming by. The caregivers love when we visit, too! Eventually I'd like to visit children's hospitals with Nugget, but he needs to mature a little more first since kids excite him the most.
I'm getting all of Nugget's paperwork ready to drop in the mail on Tuesday so I'll post a pic as soon as we receive that beautiful red "Therapy Dog" heart-shaped tag. (Obviously, we'll have a dog party to celebrate his achievement!). If you have ANY questions at all about the process, please leave me a comment with your email and I'll respond to you ASAP. It truly is an amazingly rewarding activity for everyone involved.