So You Want to Be a Therapy Dog

Every so often, a particularly lovely animal soul walks among us for a few years, a pet whose personality is so gentle and glows so brightly that it demands to be shared. These animals instantly put others at ease, effortlessly brightening the darkest day of the most difficult human being. They are called therapy dogs.

Therapy dogs have an indescribable impact on people who are sufferingand the right dog will require no special training for this type of work. It does, however, call forsome careful preparation on the part of the handler. Seemany of the people who would benefit most from therapy dog sessions are especially susceptible to germs and worms,the kind your dog could unknowingly bring alongEven healthy elderly folks have a comparatively weak immune system. Other vulnerable people include AIDS patients, chemo warriors, transplant recipients, and those who have undergone any recent surgery—people who mightparticularly appreciate a visit from your pet. If you would like to share your delightful dog with those in need, you bear the responsibility for keeping the situation safeYou’ll need to exercise a more intense level of hygiene than the average dog owner.

Therapy dogs need to be current on their vaccinations and, more importantly, their parasite control. Every animal in the householdneeds to use a high-quality flea preventative and heartworm medication continuously, regardless of the seasonFlea eradication is important for preventing tapeworm infestations anda handful of bacterial diseases such as plague (yes, that plague… still around!), all of which are capable of spreading to humans. Heartworm itself can’t pass from a dog to a human, but manymedicines prescribed for itwillhelpblockthe intestinal worms that can. Becauseno single product can eliminate all of the relevant parasites, a stool sample should also be examined at the vet three to four times a yearYes, even when the stools appear normal.

Raw diets should never be used in the home of a therapy animal. Raw pet food routinelycontains organisms that can take up residenceinside the dog and thereby pose a substantial threattoimmunosuppressed humans, even if there is no noticeable illness in the dog orany of his family members. These organisms are not detectable on a conventional fecal exam, so avoiding them entirely is the best approach. Direct or indirect contactbetween therapy dogs andwildlifeor farm animals should be minimizedsince it causes the same problem. Raccoon roundworm, for example, is widespread and essentially harmless in the raccoon population, not too noticeable in dogs, but causes a deadly brain illnesswhen transferred to humans. Don’t forget how close they are: wherever there is a trash can, raccoons will be nearby.

It’s a fine idea to take all of these measures with every pet dog, particularly those that share their home with a small child, an elderly person, or a pregnancyEach of those conditions opens a modest gap in the immune system’s protection. In our next piece you’ll learnsome more sophisticated strategies, for the therapy team that wants to go full tilt.

Dr. M.S. Regan