Getzy completed his Delta Pet Partners training, and he and his person passed their evaluation, are registered and received their badge. What now? Firstly, don’t wait too long before beginning your career. Some programs only require a few hours of volunteering per year. This is no way to become an experienced team and to keep your dog’s skill level to a standard of excellence. Delta Pet Partners average one to two hours per week and this ensures not only that the team remains capable but that the animal in particular is engaged and contentedly working.
Getzy decided to get right to work a few days after receiving his documents from Delta. He accompanied another more experienced dog to his first facility and learned very quickly the ins and outs of successful therapy dogs.
Choosing the first assignment is critical to your success. If you tested to be a Predictable Team you want to find a steady, calm, easily predicted environment. Somewhere that has the same routine, often the same clients, the challenges don’t vary and the visits are “animal-assisted activities” versus “animal-assisted therapy.” If you have tested Complex you can choose a more stressful environment, such as working with children on the disorder spectrum, or the elderly living with dementia. Or young school children who are apt to be very unpredictable.
If you are part of a Pet Partner Program your leader will help you choose the right assignments and accompany you on several if not all visits. Working with another team is not only beneficial but more fun! During class Getzy revealed an innate fondness for all people, not preferring elderly or children or teenagers. So he was suitable for a mixed environment. He showed a very strong ability to “stay on his place” for long stretches of time and be still and steady for clumsy petting. He had a real connection with children very young (3-5 years of age) and the teenagers he studied with. He has no health or physical limitations that would preclude him from walking on slippery surfaces and is very comfortable working in small spaces with other animals.
The first visit will tell a complete story about the training you received and the naturalness of you and your animal as a team. You want to be so relaxed in your ability as a handler and confidence in your dog’s steadiness that you can truly engage with whomever you are meeting. And perhaps after a few visits to one environment you find it is just not working out for you and your animal. With the help of your leader you can identify why this is not working and either change some of the elements of the visit or try another.
During that first visit pay very close attention to your animal’s signals. You will see that your animal may give off displacement signals with particular people – perhaps they have an unusual odor or are shaky and your animal perceives uncertainty. Watch for those people your animal especially enjoys. How long is your animal’s attention span? Is he comfortable being with one person for 10-15 minutes or more or does he start to shift and fidget? Does he settle in easily on his “place” and look intensely at the person he is visiting? Do you have to prompt him to go towards anyone?
Don’t let your first visit be too long and take at least one break to allow your animal to go potty, get some fresh air, have a drink.
Getzy had a most successful first visit – he easily adapted to the routine of the skilled nursing facility and loved working side by side with a more experienced dog. Getzy kept looking over at Kirby and mirroring his behavior. Ok Kirby, lay down on the towel, so will I. Ok, Kirby move closer to be reached, I can do that too!
Getzy brought one woman almost to tears and she called him “Precious.” One client was very quiet and tired but a slight smile creased her lips as Getzy got close enough for her to feel him.
Therapy teams will have many “first” visits – to new environments, with new team members, with new clients. By never getting too lax in your watchfulness over your animal you can make every first time a memorable one.