Pet Therapy Programs: Tapping Into A Dog’s Natural Instincts


Most of us need to look no further than the four-legged members of our family to know that dogs appreciate spending time with us just as much as we appreciate spending time with them. Dogs, for the most part, are social creatures. They enjoy going places and being included in our daily lives – whether it be a walk around the block, a trip to the dog park, or accompanying their human companions to work, on a vacation, or at a volunteer opportunity. Active and engaged dogs are happy dogs.

The AKC Canine Health Foundation (CHF) is committed to more than just the physical health of our four-legged companions. CHF also understands how important it is that dogs are happy and healthy socially. While there are many activities that dogs and their owners can engage in that will provide mental and physical challenges, pet therapy programs provide the added benefit of helping someone else and tapping into a dog’s natural instincts.

Dr. Karen Overall, researcher, author most recently of Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats (Elsevier), and editor of the journal in the field (Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research), provides an interesting history on a dog’s place in human history. “Dogs likely co-evolved on parallel, convergent tracks with modern humans as part of a co-operative social / work relationship that was possible because we shared similar social and communication systems, hunted in similar ways and ate similar diets.” Dr. Overall goes on to say that, “There is anthropological evidence that goes back 30,000 years of dogs living as part of human families in a status not granted other animals. This special relationship with early dogs, which probably contributed to the dog becoming the un-wolf, made dogs good targets for specific selection to enhance abilities in specific task classes such as herding and hunting. These task classes are the source of modern breed groups / breeds today.”

Over time, dogs and humans developed a mutually beneficial relationship which continues to be evident today. “Dogs are highly cognitive and social, and in order to meet their welfare needs they need favorable social and cognitive interactions,” said Dr. Overall. “Being a therapy dog meets every aspect of that goal and allows the dog to engage in daily dynamic social interactions that are, at least in part, driven by the dog.”

Devon Wilson, a senior at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh, NC and Bella, a Labrador Retriever, began the process to become a certified pet therapy team during the summer of 2012.  As part of the training Wilson learned how to give basic dog commands and how massage is used to calm therapy dogs. Bella also had to pass the Canine Good Citizen test. Wilson became interested in volunteering to help children improve their reading skills because she was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child. “I had a difficult time learning to read and struggled with sounding out words,” said Wilson.  “Reading out loud with my classmates was nearly impossible.  My hope is that other children will never have to struggle with reading, and will learn to enjoy reading out loud to the class and reading alone.”

Wilson and Bella volunteer through See Spot Read, a meet up / community calendar that helps coordinate opportunities to positively impact young readers. Founded in 2008, See Spot Read was established after Rebecca Hirschfield of Raleigh and her Shepherd / Hound mix, Freddie, completed training to become a therapy dog team. Hirschfield began looking for flexible opportunities to help children improve their reading skills; when she was unable to find such an opportunity, she and several volunteers founded See Spot Read.  See Spot Read is a program built around volunteers and their certified therapy dogs to provide encouragement to young readers at local schools and libraries. By signing up to become a member of See Spot Read, volunteers can learn about reading opportunities held in and around the Raleigh area.

According to See Spot Read, literacy specialists acknowledge that children who are below their peers in reading skills are often intimidated by reading aloud in a group, have lower self-esteem, and view reading as a chore. Dog reading programs are based on the premise that children will find reading to an animal less intimidating than reading to their peers, parents, or teachers. Being with a dog is relaxing and fun, and builds a positive association with reading activities. Instead of reading being a chore, it becomes something to look forward to when a dog is involved.

Dr. Overall explains the benefit to dogs, “Once the dog passes the qualifying test, the work of a therapy dog is so varied that dogs are able to use their cognitive skill sets in ways that too many dogs do not. The act of engaging with people with different needs and attending to them in ways that get responses is profoundly cogitatively stimulating and enriching for the dogs, and likely very socially and emotionally rewarding.” Dr. Overall continues, “If you watch kids in reading programs using dogs, the dogs watch the kids, and when the kids pause to look at the dog, the dog does something like wag his tail as part of that social interaction. Such signals then encourage the kids, and in turn, their response to the dog’s signal is also a reward.”

Bella loves to please her owners, and according to Wilson, receives just as much from participating in the program as the children do.  “Every time I take out her therapy bandana and say, ‘It’s time for school, Bella,’ she goes into a frenzy!   She absolutely loves to be with people. Having her go into a school setting gives her the opportunity for social interaction.  By asking Bella to sit and listen to the stories, she is so content to be working with the students.  When the children get excited about finishing a book or mastering a difficult word she senses that, and gets excited too. Like humans, dogs need to be challenged, and this is Bella’s challenge.”

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