When we brought Kai home, I knew I wanted him to be a therapy dog. His name means “restoration and recovery” in Japanese, which I didn’t know when we named him that. He’s actually named after Kailua-Kona, an area on the Big Island of Hawaii, which is our restoration and recovery place. Cool, right? Restoration in several languages, our boy.
I didn’t know much about therapy dogs other than they go where people need comfort of some kind and comfort them. I just knew his spirit fit with that service.
The breeder we bought Kai from wanted him to be a show dog. This was not his personality at all. Besides, the whole show dog scene wreaked of beauty pageants in the mid-West, or child actors in Southern California. That’s not a life I want for those I love. I told the breeder I was really not feeling the show dog thing. I explained again we wanted him to be a therapy dog. Our goals were different for this boy. It came to a head one weekend when he stayed with her so we could attend our son’s swim championships and she overfed him despite my (and the vet’s) instructions. I felt like I was interacting with a meddling mother-in-law. When I explicitly told her not to do that, and she did it anyway, she crossed a boundary in our relationship. That was the end of that.
Luckily and synchronistically, the trainer we had been working with that I really liked turned out to be a therapy dog trainer. I was so excited to learn that. We had training sessions with Kai so that we could make sure we were taking the right steps to socialize him and prepare him for his therapy dog test at 1 year. The trainer gave us lots of literature and a hierarchy of exposures that we needed to make sure we fit into early socialization windows. He needed to go on elevators, escalators, meet all different kinds of people (lots of them) and be exposed to many different loud sirens. I had to do that online since we rarely have those in the country where we live. We worked our way up the hierarchy of exposure.
We started taking him to swim meets where our youngest son swims. It was a great opportunity for him to meet many different people, hear loud noises, see swimming (and not jump in the pool!) and practice his service. I noticed how the kids would approach him between races and how he would help them. Restoration and recovery. He definitely started to build his fan club. Sydney, here, even talked her parents into training a therapy dog of her own.
His new friends would ask, “How do you make a dog a therapy dog?”
People would ask, “Are you going to send him away?”
Many people don’t understand the difference between a service dog and a therapy dog. A service dog is a dog you train to help a person with a specific disability and send away to go live with that person. That’s not what we’re doing. Kai is part of our family. A therapy dog is different. The US Therapy of Dog Registry defines a therapy dog this way:
A therapy dog is a dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, and to people with autism. Therapy dogs are usually not assistance or service dogs, but can be one or both with some organizations.
In order to learn more about how to tailor my daily training routine with Kai, I asked the trainer what I should be working on with Kai. She asked if I wanted to attend the pre-evaluation session and before I knew it, I was volunteering yesterday at the evaluation. I met the dogs, both small and large, that were there to be evaluated or to be “extras” in the evaluation. The extras help the prospective therapy dogs with distractions. Here are a few of those canines:
As the day went on, more dogs wandered in and out. They practiced all their skills (there’s a long list of tasks and behaviors they need to demonstrate.) I learned things I didn’t know, like in hospitals humans can transfer certain diseases like MRSA to dogs so you have to be careful where you go. You need to have people sanitize their hands first before they pet your dog.
I also learned that these animals are used in classrooms to help children to read. As a reading specialist, I will be taking Kai with me to do this in classrooms–and first, teaching the importance of hand sanitization Day 1. He loves kids so this will be a really great fit. I love that this is even a thing. I think back to when I taught 2nd grade. My kids would have loved it.
After Therapy Dog Day, I had a new list of 14 points in my notes on my phone to practice. Kai has six months to go before his big day. Luckily, the test falls in April right around his birthday. Then, look out kiddos. Kai’s coming to help you with phonics while restoring you simultaneously…right after he restores himself. Rest up, little buddy.