Want To Become A Therapy Dog Volunteer?

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Have you considered becoming a therapy dog volunteer?

If you share your life with a dog or dogs, this would be a wonderful way to give back and make a difference in the world.

That is exactly what Deborah Fingerlow does! Deborah is also a writer so when I asked if she would be interested in guest posting, I was very excited to get a YES back!

Deborah shares about her experiences with her two gorgeous beagles, Ella and Sunshine. You’ll find out what it’s like to be a therapy dog volunteer, as well as the training Deborah and her dogs had to undergo to qualify for this wonderful role.

Thank you so much for sharing your story Deborah. I am sure it will inspire others who are seeking meaning and purpose.


Give Me Comfort: Therapy Dogs at Work by Deborah Fingerlow

At 23 and 25 pounds respectively, beagles Ella and Sunshine are all business. Dressed in matching therapy dog vests, the three-year-old sisters have their game on. It’s time to go to work.

Heads up, eyes bright and tails wagging, the girls literally swagger into the middle school. Ella’s vest has a patch proclaiming her “Awesome Bean,” a nod to her nickname: Ella-Bean. Sunshine’s sports a patch of a yellow smiling sun. The running joke at school is “it’s time for a little sunshine.” These beagles are happy to comply.

So am I. My name is Deborah Fingerlow and I’m the human half of this volunteer registered therapy dog team. Hands down, Sunshine is the rockstar of this team. My daughter is teamed up with Ella, and finds herself playing second fiddle as well. It’s a position we are honored to hold. Come with me to a middle school classroom for children with different needs, and you’ll see why.

Deborah with her two dogs

Deborah with Ella & Sunshine

Josh looked expectantly at Sunshine, then repeated himself a third time. “Wuh!” Josh’s bright eyes look out of a freckle-dusted face, maintaining eye contact with the dog. Sunshine is a lemon beagle, caramel and white and beautiful. She sits quietly, seeming to consider the young boy in front of her.

“Woof.” Still sitting.

Josh jumped back, startled. His aide and teacher watched carefully. Then he leaned forward, laughing and said it again. “Wuh!”

Sunshine complied and the conversation continued. One year later, Josh now meets Sunshine at the front office to walk her back to his classroom. They walk when the hallways are streaming with students from other classes, in a hurry for their destinations. But they stop, looking at Josh and Sunshine, asking questions, interacting. Josh is the center of attention with Sunshine, and they both enjoy it.

While it’s true that Sunshine provides comfort, more importantly, in this setting, she is a conduit between students that may never interact. She builds confidence in Josh as he walks her through the school. Sunshine swaggers and walks next to him, knowing that he’s certain to ask her to speak numerous times. And they are both happy.

Therapy dog volunteer with girl

Sunshine busy working as a therapy dog at a school.

Sunshine and Ella are beagle sisters, one lemon and one fade. My daughter and I trained and now handle the “girls” as certified teams through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, based in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Their objective is simple: “to form a network of caring individuals who are willing to share their special dogs in order to bring happiness and cheer to people, young and old alike.”

Our training was made possible through the ever-so-patient help of our trainer. Enrolled as 12-week pups, the girls went through basic training before testing and obtaining certification six months after their first birthday.

Basic training is exactly what you’d think. How to walk on a lead, come when called, how to wait, all the basics every dog needs. Further training solidifies these skills and adds a few more like learning to walk with a wheelchair and growing accustomed to unexpected noises. At the end, the dog receives its Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certification from the American Kennel Club (AKC). The teams are then required to pass testing and show their skills in three on-site visits to different types of facilities under the watchful eye of an evaluator.

I won’t say that every day was easy. Case in point? On the day of our final supervised visit, it was snowy and cold. We arrived at the facility, put the girls’ therapy vests on, and stood there helplessly as Ella, our beautiful, intelligent, engaged beagle, lost her mind. She jumped in and out of snowbanks, she pulled in random directions, she barked a full-throated beagle howl incessantly. After trying to calm her down, I left my daughter with Ella and went in to tell the trainer we had a problem.

Frustrated, my daughter decided to bring her in to the enclosed entry. And Ella transformed. No jumping, no barking, no howling. By the time I made it back to her at the front door, Ella was sitting, wagging her tail and gazing into the eyes of her first visitor. Ella was a therapy dog and she went to work.

The girls continue working, exploring new venues that may benefit from their floppyeared, cold nose comfort. In 2017, they’ll begin working at a university. In this hightech, high-stress world, even college students benefit from time spent simply being with a therapy dog. When we arrive on campus, we just stand on the quad and we’re quickly surrounded by students wanting to cuddle the beagles.

Therapy dog volunteer in action

Sunshine in action as a therapy dog, with Deborah (left).

Therapy dogs have always been welcome (with the proper training and paperwork) in hospitals and nursing homes. We’re also finding a warm welcome with veterans returning home from overseas. At a local event, an Iraq war veteran thanked me for deciding to train our girls for this work. He crouched down, rubbing both beagles at the same time. “I got to spend time with the therapy dogs at the airport on the first leg of my trip home,” he explained. “It really helped to have that time and total acceptance to decompress before I arrived back home.”

Libraries have opened their doors to therapy dogs through the “Read to Dogs” program that encourages reluctant students to read a story to a dog. The calm acceptance of the therapy dog takes the pressure off, and the students do very well.

And it isn’t just the students, or patients, or soldiers that benefit. The dogs are happy and engaged and love their work. They are social creatures at heart, and this work provides them the perfect outlet. Dogs love to have a job to do, a purpose. And at the end of the day, a tired dog is a happy dog.

But that’s not all. As the human half of a therapy dog team, I know I’m not the star. And I’m completely happy to play second fiddle to a 25-pound beagle. There is joy and satisfaction in this work. There is meaningful interaction and strong connections. There is a fullness of heart that comes with sharing and making the world a nicer, more accepting place.

And we’ve just started our journey.

Deb Therapy Dog Volunteer

Deborah Fingerlow is a writer, traveler and explorer seeking adventures both large and small. You can find her at a local farmers market, therapy beagles in tow, or catch up with her on her blog at www.ridingthedime.com.

“Life is a grand adventure; don’t be afraid of taking a wrong turn. Embrace it, and own your decision.”