You took the Pet Partner Workshop and passed your Evaluation with your animal. Now what?
Before you begin your therapy career give considerable thought to where you and your animal will do best.
There are so many options and both the handler and animal have to not only be suitable for a specific environment and population, but be comfortable volunteering there.
If possible, shadow experienced teams without your animal to a broad variety of environments and populations. See how different visits to hospitals are versus hospice or skilled nursing facilities or dementia care. See what is expected and accepted regarding the demeanor and behavior of the animal. Experience working with children in a classroom setting versus one on one with children with special needs. Think about how your dog would respond to the smells, sounds, flooring, size, scope of each facility and be guided by what your dog will accept best.
Know yourself. Self care is critical. If you know you cannot be in hospice don’t go to hospice. If you know several people living with the challenges at a certain facility, and cannot deal with it as a volunteer, don’t go there. If something is too close or too difficult, don’t go there.
Many teams start out wanting to work with children and especially Reading programs. But will your dog be happy lying down for periods of time, being close to one or more children, focusing on that child and book. Or would your dog much prefer walking through the hallways of a bustling place greeting new people every step of the way.
Would your dog be happy waiting for long periods of time in a calm position for a client to finally reach out and touch or make eye contact or would your dog become impatient and wiggly? Visit several opportunities and consider the distance you would need to drive or travel and take into consideration the parking situation. If the weather is bad, do you have to walk a large dog into the facility thus bringing in a wet dog?
Is there a suitable area for your dog to eliminate and anywhere to dispose of the waste? Is the staff friendly and welcoming to volunteers and the dogs in particular? Do you look forward to going to the facility or assignment and does your dog enjoy the time there?
Don’t be afraid to recognize if something doesn’t work out. If after a couple of visits you or your dog is stressed or just not feeling the fit is right, make a change. If you are part of a Team discuss this with your Coordinator so you can thoughtfully find the perfect match.
The best way ensure a successful first visit is to make it brief. Arrive at the location at least fifteen minutes early so your dog can smell and walk around and eliminate. If you can go with a Pet Partner mentor that is even better as someone can guide you and make the visit more pleasant. Stay only fifteen minutes and give your dog a break. Go back in if he is happy and wants to. Or lengthen the visit each time according to your dog’s tolerance.
I even drove to every place we volunteer several times before our first visit to get my dogs used to the length of the ride and the facility grounds. I let them urinate so we had some dog smells the next time!
This is how I discovered that Benny got car sick if we went too soon after he ate and the ride was long in the Nevada heat. So he no longer eats breakfast before early gigs and is perfectly fine in the car and happy to eat when we get home. This is how I found out that sweet Kirby’s bladder always made me pull over after riding about half an hour so I knew the routes to take that allowed me a spot for him to pee while not being late!
I always do what we do in human therapy --- sandwich the assignment. That means start with a very positive experience or task always done well such as seeing a favorite client or having your dog do something they excel at, even as simple as sitting. Then we go about the visit and always end with another favorite client or behavior. So the entire visit was sandwiched between tremendous successes for both ends of the leash.
Benny happens to love to do his “pancake” and “crawl” so we always start with him doing this even if no one is watching! It gets him in the work mode.
Be patient and don’t expect things to go perfectly the first few times. Observe your animal closely and pay attention to your own feelings. You are a team and both ends of the leash have to be comfortable and happy and confident to make therapy work the tremendous asset it is.