Becoming a therapy dog is an involved process: a dog needs a solid grounding in obedience, to start. Additional training involves getting the dog used to a variety of situations, equipment, sounds and environments that otherwise might cause stress or fear. A therapy dog needs to remain calm, confident and stable in situations that can sometimes be chaotic.
If you’ve ever met Bamse, the shaggy, bright-eyed Lhasa Apso who belongs to TCOTC member Berit Gerhardson, you won’t be at all surprised to learn that he recently became a registered Therapy Dog. He’s gentle and unflappable, greets everyone with a happy tail wag, and loves to cuddle. “When he sees new people, he wags his tail and people think, ‘Oh, he likes me!'” says Berit. “It makes them feel good.”
TCOTC’s Therapy Dog Program Director, Carol Ouhl, certainly had no doubt. “Berit is a very warm, and easy to talk to and relates well to her dog,” says Carol. “And Bamse is a calm, social, well trained dog. The moment I met them, I knew that if Bamse wanted to do this work, they were going to make a great visiting team.”
Berit adopted Bamse as a rescue when he was a year old. An experienced trainer and an instructor during the early days of TCOTC’s agility program, Berit began training Bamse in agility. Bamse did well and earned several titles. However, Berit eventually realized Bamse wasn’t terribly interested in agility. At the same time, he excelled in Obedience and even earned his Canine Good Citizen certificate last June.
Knowing dogs are often happier when they are active and have a “job,” Berit enrolled Bamse in TCOTC’s Therapy Dog program. A therapy dog, also called a visiting dog, provides affection and comfort to people, typically in an institution such as a hospital, nursing home, assisted-living, hospice, shelter or school.
“It’s very challenging,” says Berit. “It’s like agility. As the handler, you have to learn what you and your dog can and cannot do. There are a lot of rules: The dog can’t jump up, can’t pick things up, and so on.” Berit says training Bamse to be comfortable with noises was a new experience. “We had never really practiced with noise before.”
Despite the challenges, Bamse was a natural. “He’s very even-keeled,” says Berit. “He’s the best dog, and so easygoing! He’s never wrecked anything or been destructive, and he loves people. And a therapy dog has to like people. You can’t force them.”
After completing Visiting Dog classes at TCOTC last October, Berit and Bamse tested with Therapy Dogs International and passed. They now “work” at a rehabilitation center in Brooklyn Center once a week, visiting patients who are transitioning from hospital to home again. “They love it,” says Berit. “One patient had a Lhasa a while ago, and another now wants to get a ‘cuddly’ dog. The staff like Bamse a lot, too.”
Berit says a therapy dog is not the same as a service or emotional support dog. A service dog is trained to help its handler mitigate a physical or mental disability, and does not socialize with other people or animals. A therapy dog provides comfort through attention and petting, and by being a catalyst for conversation with the handler. Therapy dogs are expected to be social and interact with others.