I am a fortunate handler indeed, having 3 working TDI certified dogs, Hawke, Kestrel and Merlin. Hawke, my nearly 10 year old Labrador retriever had been volunteering an assisted living center that also has a Harbor unit for the memory impaired. Hawke had visited there twice a month for about 4 years, but I had noticed that she wasn’t as happy with her assisted living visits as she is with her library visits. Hawke is read to at 5 local libraries and a Montessori school. Hawke loves her library visits, can hardly wait to get there, and is as energetic when she leaves as when she arrives. Clearly, the reading program is as good for Hawke as it is for the children who read to her. Not so much the elderly visits. Hawke is a very sympathetic labrador, if a resident was having a bad day, they could always pour their heart out to her and she would sit and listen patiently, sometimes offering a lick as a way to say “It will all be alright”. She had one special friend, who missed her cocker spaniels so much, she would cry to Hawke, and Hawke would listen carefully, and take her burden. Last summer, I started to notice that Hawke would be drooping, and shuffling in her walk whenever we left the assisted living, and I started to wonder if perhaps she is too sympathetic and takes on too much from the residents.
In the meanwhile, Kestrel, at age 7 has started to FINALLY settle down. She tends to be a very busy labrador, but a very upbeat and cheerful one as well. Kestrel passed her TDI test with flying colors, she’s been a CGC since she was 8 months old, so I knew she would have no issues, except perhaps excessive happiness, with therapy dog exam. The evaluator thought she would make a lovely therapy dog, and she was right.
Kestrel’s first visit to the assisted living was five months ago. We arrive at 11am, a great time as there are many residents in the lobby queing up for lunch. So many are delighted to see her, and hear about her being Hawke’s sister. She accepts lots of pats, smiles and wags at everyone she meets in the lobby. We hear about one woman’s dog, who was a housemaster dog named Marcus Aurelius. One woman I hadn’t met before told me she had dogs all her life and was sure she’d never get to pet a dog again, she was delighted with Kestrel. We sometimes head to the second floor lounge where we visit with the card playing ladies, they always set down their cards to pat Kestrel. The staff is all smiles to see Kestrel’s happiness.
We typically pick up a key for the Harbor unit to go visit the folks there. One time, a small group sitting in the living room was working on listing names of songs, they were so glad to be interrupted to pet Kestrel. Kestrel was so good, she made her way to each person that wanted to pet her and sat down to receive pats. Her tail never stops wagging, and when we leave a room everyone is smiling. Sometimes she can get them all laughing, such as the day she wagged her tail so hard one woman’s cane fell over, well all the harbor folks thought that was just delightful and they laughed and laughed. One woman wants to know how old she is, another wants to know exactly what is a Kestrel (a small falcon, and the joke in our house is that Kestrel is a little Hawke). There is always someone who asks if she’s cuban (confusing Castro with Kestrel), or why is she named after motor oil (Castrol v. Kestrel) One woman told us about her black lab that her daughter has now and wanted to know if we know them. (I do, she’s a member of our lab club) When ever we leave, all the Harbor residents are smiling.
As a handler, I find it interesting that not only do these two dogs have very different personalities at home, their visiting personalities are very different as well. Hawke is more subdued, and will sit and listen to a sad story and take it all on herself. She does prefer to try and visit everyone so I have to be vigilant about the folks that don’t really care for big black dogs. If I don’t take control, Hawke would like to insist that everyone should meet the big black dog. Hawke is also very good at finding the person who really needs a little extra loving on that particular day.
Kestrel on the other hand is very upbeat and lively, her tail never stops wagging, and she smiles all the time while visiting. She has a second sense about who doesn’t care for dogs and will give them a glance but doesn’t feel the need to visit them. She’s very good at figuring out who really wants to pet her and she’s very good at getting everyone smiling, staff and residents alike. She’s almost dismissive of the folks who aren’t interested in dogs, a great quality in a therapy dog visiting an assisted living facility.
After Kestrel’s great success on her first few visits, she is now the elder visiting dog for Hawke is officially retired from elder visits. Hawke will continue to be the reading dog for her libraries and schools, as that is the volunteer job that rewards her the most. All three of my dogs are well suited to this work, but as a handler, I have to also keep my dog’s best interests at heart. Just as some people are cut out for different types of volunteer jobs, its important to remember that our dogs have personalities too, and what might be the perfect visiting situation for one, might not be perfect for a different dog.
If you are thinking of working with your dog as a therapy dog, think deeply on what kinds of situations will be interesting or rewarding to you. Love kids? children’s hospitals, reading dog, school visits might be just your thing. Want to help in a hospital setting, many take therapy dogs. Hate the thought of nursing homes but want to help the elderly? look for an assisted living, a senior center or adult day care. There are as many interesting places to visit with a therapy dog as there are teams willing to visit. Take your dog into consideration, their personalities can be quite varied and what delights one dog may overstimulate or depress another. Hawke is too empathetic for elder visits, but is energized by visiting the children who read to her. Kestrel is a busy, bouncy dog, but never jumps up on staff or patients, is as if she knows the rules are different, and she’s never brought down by an elder visit. I doubt she’d ever be able to sit still while a child read to her. Merlin is just learning his therapy dog work, and his few library ventures have been very good, he’s a happy boy but very calm, and happy to just sit while a child pats him. Know your dog and find the best venue for you both. Its great volunteer work, and another way to have a special connection with your dog.