Pet Therapy Interview

I recently had the opportunity to interview Rachael Feliciano, the Philadelphia representative for “Leashes Of Love AAA”. She provided The Dog Guide with some fantastic information about Animal Assisted Activities and her own experiences with her 5 dogs!

How long have you owned dogs and what inspired your interest in Pet Therapy?

I have owned dogs for 10yrs, since the age 21. My first dog was a little Pomeranian that I found running as a stray. My first contact with Pet Therapy happened around this time. I worked for an ambulance company and I watched a woman come in to a facility with her 2 little dogs. I was so intrigued watching patients that 2 minutes before had been staring at the floor, were now shrieking in delight and calling the dogs over to them. At 25yrs old I decided to purchase a female Chihuahua, Trixie. Though I love small dogs I always had an interest in big dogs as I was raised with a Doberman. After doing research I fell in love with Rottweilers. When I was 27yrs old Blaze, my first male Rottweiler joined my happy little family consisting of me and Trixie (who was now 2yrs old). While I had been doing research on Rottweilers I had come across information on Pet Therapy dogs. I started to read the requirements and rules to make myself familiar with them.

What is a Therapy Dog?

A Therapy Dog or AAA (Animal Assisted Activities) dog is basically a dog that is trained or taught to provide affection and comfort for any individual that is visited. Therapy dogs are often confused with service dogs. Service Dogs are specifically trained to aid someone that is disabled. They are handled by that individual only and are not considered a pet but rather as a tool to help the person in everyday life activities. Service dogs by law are permitted in any public building that the handler needs to go in. Therapy Dogs are only permitted in buildings that they are invited to come into, are family pets, and can be handled by several different people.

Do all of your dogs participate in pet therapy?

Our fur family has grown some since the two dogs, but yes all five of our dogs participate in therapy visits. Trixie our 6yr old 6lb Chihuahua, Blaze our 130lb nearly 4yr old Rottweiler, and Ceasar our 1yr old 68lb Pit Bull Terrier all have both their Pet Therapy certification and received their CGC (Canine Good Citizen certification). Damos our 11month old 95lb Rottweiler and Chula our 6month old 10lb Chinese Crested also participate in visits but are to young to take the test for certification.

What type of training is needed to become a therapy dog?

There isn’t a specific class that is needed to participate though many trainers have begun offering pet therapy training classes. None of my dogs had been through any formal training classes prior to them doing this. I trained them on my own. Owners that plan on participating in therapy visits need to have complete control of their dog. These visits aren’t for dogs to socialize amongst each other, so after we enter a facility they aren’t allowed to interact. The dog must know basic obedience commands such as heel, leave it, down, stay, sit and come. Commands that aren’t required but make the visit’s a little easier are back up (to direct your dog to walk backwards possibly because there isn’t space to turn around), forward (to let your dog know to walk through a tight space ahead of you), paws up (to teach your dog to place their paws on your arm so a patient in a high bed can pet them) and any other little things you can come up with. I often use the word “calm” so my dogs know they have to move slowly or stand still because the patient is nervous. Socialization is key with these dogs. Therapy dogs usually are the social butterflies of the canine world; they thrive for affection from anyone that will give it to them. They have to be able to be touched by strangers anywhere on their body with no negative reaction. Patients that we visit aren’t required to ask to touch the dogs so the dog has to be ok with random hands grabbing, petting, and pushing on them. Facilities are unpredictable - each room can have a different type of patient whether they be crying, screaming, excited, scared, or a dog lover. Dogs obviously can’t be fearful of medical equipment, automatic doors, stairs and elevators. If you are like me and take your dog everywhere they are permitted and allow everyone to touch them they will naturally gain this ability with a little time.

Can any breed participate?

Absolutely. Whether you adopted them, purchased them from a breeder, they are pure breed, mixed, small, tall, old, or young - none of it matters to the patients we visit. They just want to spend time with a well-mannered, obedient dog. Some therapy groups allow cats and other small animals such as rabbits to participate. Our group has several different breeds of dogs in it. Depending on the place we are visiting we can have anywhere from 5 to 20 dogs being handled that range from a 3lb Chihuahua to a 180+lb Great Dane.

Where are therapy dogs used?

Therapy dogs visit nursing homes, hospitals, juvenile detention centers, rehabilitation centers, independent living facilities, cerebral palsy schools, brain injury facilities, and anywhere else they get invited. I’ve done school presentations about therapy dogs for our group and our group even participated in a fashion show at a middle school trying to help kids raise funds for a local shelter. I also had an opportunity to do a Pit Bull awareness presentation to a class. The possibilities are endless.

How do people usually react to the dogs? Do you ever get negative reactions?

Most patients look forward to us and wish we would come more often. Many of the people we visit get very few visitors, if any, so we try to make their time with us meaningful. We will talk with them about their dogs or dogs they have had. Of course some patients prefer only to pet little dogs, big dogs, or only certain breeds. But it’s all about making the patients happy so we can‘t be offended if they don‘t want to see our dog that day. Negative reactions are bound to happen, not everyone likes dogs. I’ve had patients scream when I ask them if they want to see my dog. I just say, “I’m sorry, have a nice night“. Some people are afraid of dogs altogether. So I try to keep myself between patients and my dogs until I know whether or not they want to pet them.

How do people respond to breeds like Rottweilers and Pit Bulls being used as therapy dogs?

When the director of Leashes to Love evaluated my dogs she made sure I understood and was prepared for negative or fearful reaction from patients. She wasn’t sure how people would react because I was the first person to join with a Rottweiler and a Pit Bull. Even though I knew my dogs were good boys I was really nervous at first. The patients though, are great with them. I’ve only had a few patients be leery of them and usually after spending a few minutes talking to the dogs, they usually change their mind. I think most fear is initially because they are big not because of their breed. Most people can’t identify their breed by looking at them and by the time they ask me their breed they have already fallen in love with their personality. I have had more issues with nurses at the facilities. They will hide in medical closets, make rude remarks about them being “bad” dogs, and give me dirty looks. It doesn’t bother me though. When an older woman hugs my dog and says that I made her night or a gentlemen cries out of happiness… that is what matters to me. That is why I’m there.

Can you tell us a few experiences you’ve had bringing your dogs to therapy work?

One of my favorite experiences was with Ceasar, my Pit Bull. We were spending time with an older woman; Ceasar was kissing her hands and she was just in awe of him. She was hugging him and really enjoying herself. We went to leave, said good-bye and she asked what breed he was. I said “Pit Bull“. She started giggling and pulled the sheet over her head. She peered over the edge of the sheet and I said “Yep you just met a Pit Bull and still have all your fingers.” Once with Blaze I stopped in a room and the woman immediately started crying. I asked if she was okay and she started telling me about her son that had died recently. He had a Rottweiler that had died and 2 months later he died from medical complications. I ended up spending the rest of the visit sitting with her and talking as she cuddled Blaze. He sat there so content with his head in her arms. The next time I visited she was so happy when she saw him. This time she was much more peaceful but still cuddled him tight and he again just sat there with his head on her lap. One of the nurses later told me she was so happy that Blaze had come because the woman had been saying just before we got there she needed to see her buddy Blaze. We have a woman at one facility that saves her crackers and ginger snap cookies from her dinners for the dogs every month.

I could go on for hours with experiences. At times it is sad when people tell you they never have visitors but knowing your dog makes such a difference and brings smiles makes it all worth it.

What steps should someone take that is interested in getting involved in pet therapy?

The most important step is obedience and the socialization of your dog. Once you have that together be sure you understand the commitment you are making. This is volunteer work but the patients and other handlers rely on you being there when you say you are going to be. Next do research. Learn all you can about it so you can be sure this is for you. We’ve had people join with great dogs but after doing a nursing home they realize they can’t handle the sadness we sometimes encounter. The Internet gives you knowledge at your fingertips. Look and see what qualifications you need to have to participate. Most groups require you be certified before attending any visits. Though CGC (AKC Canine Good Citizen Test) isn’t required it’s a good entry test to see if your dog is ready to take the therapy certification test. Search online for therapy groups in your area, if you can’t find any contact different certifying groups. Often they have groups that are unadvertised doing visits all over the US. If not sometimes they can point you in a better direction for your area. If you are located in Bucks County PA, North East Philadelphia, or Central/South Jersey email me at Rachael_and_the_brat.pack@yahoo.com. Maybe you’ll find a space volunteering with our group. If there are no groups in your area take a day trip, get your dog certified, go home and set up visits on your own. Once your certified you can go to your local facilities and talk with them about allowing you to visit.

Anything else you’d like to tell Dog Guide readers?

If you have a well-mannered dog please look into sharing them with others! It’s the best gift you can give to someone who doesn’t have the opportunity of their dogs being with them at this moment. The smiles, hugs, tears, laughter, “thank yous” from patients and their family, make every minute of training you put into your dog worth it!!

Thanks to Rachael for the great interview! We encourage Dog Guide readers to visit Leashes Of Love for more information about pet theraphy.

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