Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Meet a therapy dog (and feel free to pet him)

This guest post is from a local pal, Kristen Ryan. She is The Official Vacation Pet Sitter of Puppy, our fish, and even made a house call to pick him up when I couldn't find a minute to drop him off. She is a Good Person. She blogs about her adventures as a volunteer therapy-dog handler at Therapy Dogs Heal. What she had to say:

Every time my certified therapy dog, Ace, and I pass through the revolving door at the hospital we get strange looks. Though he wears a vest when we visit the cardiac and intensive-care units, some still question why an 80-pound dog is hanging out there.

We are there to bring levity to a place that’s usually serious or sad. We’re there to break up the tedium of daytime TV, boredom, loneliness and pain. We’re there to comfort and distract and laugh with the patients, families and staff – and believe me, we serve all three groups equally. Every single visit makes me laugh, even when we do hospice and bereavement work.

Ace’s vest reads, “Therapy Dog – Please Pet Me.” Though it’s not mandated that we use a vest, it gives us a little bit of credibility when we’re asking to ride the elevator with people who aren’t so sure about big, hairy dogs.

It can be confusing because most people know that they should never interrupt a working service dog, yet here’s this golden retriever in a vest, smiling and wagging his tail, begging to be petted.

Ace and I would never misrepresent ourselves as a service-dog team. Service dogs are specially trained companions for people with disabilities. A service dog can guide the blind, open doors, alert to sounds, pick up objects or warn its handler of an impending seizure.

As part of the Americans With Disabilities Act, service dogs are permitted in any public place including restaurants and taxicabs. Though therapy dogs are tested, certified and insured for their visits, they are still considered pets that must obey “no pets” policies and health-code restrictions.

I wish more pet owners respected the “no pets” policies of stores and restaurants. People with disabilities have enough trouble getting their service dogs access without women pitching a fit because their handbag Yorkies aren’t welcome in Starbucks. Please remember that service dogs are trained to curl up under the table and wait quietly. Their impact is minimal and their right to be there is protected by law.

This week the federal government redefined the ADA’s rules for service dogs. The new restrictions crack down on people who misrepresent their pet dogs as service dogs.

“Service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

The crime deterrent effects of an animal´s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.

The new definitions also restrict service-animal status to dogs and miniature horses (really!) and do not allow the same protection for other animals like cats, ferrets and chinchillas. I anxiously await the headline-grabbing lawsuit from someone who insists that his water buffalo is a service animal.

When a service dog comes your way, keep moving and don’t distract him, but when you come across a therapy dog at the library’s reading program or the hospital’s pediatric unit, ask his handler’s permission then proceed to love him up. That’s why we’re there. 


  1. Therapy dogs are so wonderful. Thank you for sharing your story and advocating for service animals so well!

  2. Thank you so much for stating the facts and getting them right! I have a service dog. I know therapy dogs do great things, but I have met many teams who don't know the laws and try to pass their therapy dogs off as service dogs. Thank you!

  3. What a wonderful thing. I wanted to write service but that seemed wrong after the definition in the post.

  4. When my son was in the PICU recovering from open heart surgery, my hubby & I couldn't wait for the therapy dogs to come by. We're both dog lovers & spending some time with those happy, furry friends would help take our minds off of things, even it was just for a few mins.

  5. I don't think I ever really understood the point of therapy dogs until we spent months in the PICU. We didn't have one visiting us, but I can just imagine how amazing it would've felt to have a dog to sit with and love on.

  6. Thanks to Kristen for clarifying the distinction between "service" and "therapy" animals. The benefit of each can't begin to be measured, but in its own appropriate place.

    I share Kristen's--and the ADA's--concern for the omnipresence of little pet dogs appearing at the grocery store (I've only ever met one genuine service dog at the grocery store and her well-mannered service did not bother me in the least. Otherwise, I have a real problem with dogs in the produce section...even my own dogs aren't allowed in the kitchen while I cook) and other public places in the name of personal "therapy." It concerns me that abuse of privilege will cause public uproar and find genuine service animals banned from places where all people deserve access.

  7. we have a service dog training place about 15 miles from my house. I have run into dogs in training several times, and they are always well behaved!! Twice as a waitress I have waited on tables with a service dog underneath, and you really don't remember they are even there after a while. The trainers are pretty awesome too. I remember running into a trainer/dog in a local store and my toddler was trying to pet the dog. as I tried to keep him from petting the dog, the trainer said "it's ok this time--we're trying to train her to ignore distractions!"

    a nursing home I worked at had several dogs living on site to function as untrained therapy dogs on the dementia unit. Sometimes they allowed staff to bring in well trained dogs from home during their shift. The residents really enjoyed it!!

  8. I think its great to see the service animals doing good deds my Parents raised 7Dogs for leader of the blind here in michigan they puppy raised them for a year before they go back and get matched up I was on of the lucky ones to get one back because she could not do the training at the school so my family love her very much she was 1yr when we got her and now she 9yrs old but been a great friend after her little bit of training she did get

  9. what would you do if you were blind or a person that was physically disabled and I took away your abilities? The dogs are so important. It is important to remember that they are both needed in their different ways therapy and service.:)

  10. I am a contrarian, I guess. I like dogs. I like cats too, for that matter. They don't bother me in places where people go, particularly restaurants or coffee shops or things of that nature. I think it's silly that you can't go to the postoffice with your dog; you have to leave them tied up outside while you wait to buy stamps and hope someone doesn't steal them.

    I wish there were more restaurants that were pet friendly to well-behaved dogs, particularly in the good weather when people like to go out with their pets for the day. When I was a kid there was an ice cream place in town where you could get burgers and hotdogs that welcomed "good" dogs on leashes on their covered patio, and they'd even give the dog a bowl of ice water in summertime. The place is long gone now (parking lot expansion) but it was nice to go with your family, dog included and see other dog owner families. I know they do this in other countries, I think we're behind the times, so long as the dog has good manners, of course.

    The nursing home where I work allows pet visitors, dog and cat and even the occasional gerbil. They don't have to be "therapy" dogs, they can be housepets (often they are the pets of the person in the home that are staying with other family). They've never had a badly behaved animal come by yet--don't know if it's the luck of the draw or just the atmosphere of the place.

  11. kristen is a Good Person. Acey is a Good Dog.

  12. We're huge fans of Acey - and Kristen. Our neighborhood wouldn't be the same without that pair...
    my son often comes home from seeing Ace and asks straight out - "when can we make a therapy dog"? He knows from spending time with Kristen that Ace had to learn - and so did she. He's watching her carefully - and more than once I've seen him give our aging dog a command he's learned from Ace and Kristen!

    Thanks Ellen for sharing the space - and this post with your readers.

  13. I'm so proud of Kristen and Ace's Aunt. I introduced them to dogs but they took it from there to add to their communities and their families.

  14. I am a HUGE fan of therapy dogs (our daughter has Autism, and while I know people are starting to want service dogs for that, I prefer the help of a therapy dog). I think they help so many people in such a significant way. My daughter attends animal assisted therapy, and she is like a whole different kids when she is around those animals.

  15. Some people need service dogs and fakers make service dogs and their guardians look bad. We need to crack down on impostors...


Thanks for sharing!

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