My dog Shelby is a certified therapy dog. This means she has passed a test indicating that she is qualified to visit nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospitals, residential care facilities, hospice patients, and she can participate in “Read to a Dog” programs at libraries and schools. It also means that she exhibited a temperament that is suitable for such “work.” It is work, even though this is a volunteer position and cannot be done for money, as certified by the organization we are members of.
Shelby and I have not done any visiting since February of 2020. This was the time Covid started to rear its ugly head in our area. Nursing homes and the like were one of the first things to be shut down because of the vulnerable nature of their residents. It was deemed too great a risk for dog and handler teams to visit. (And I agree with this determination.)
As late spring 2021 arrived, things were looking up as the Covid vaccine started to be distributed. Case numbers fell and it was safer to go out, with the proper safeguards. I got Shelby’s veterinary care and records up to date and sent away for her 2021 credentials, seen above. I was taking steps so we would soon be ready to resume visiting our friends at a local facility and maybe consider going back to the schools with the Reading Role Model program through the United Way.
Now cases are sky rocketing again to over 100,000 per day in our country. I’m not feeling so safe anymore. And I certainly don’t want to take a chance on spreading Covid to any people Shelby and I would visit. I am not ruling out the possibility that Shelby and I may still be able to visit this year, but I am putting our return on hold for a while longer.
This is a sad thing to me for multiple reasons. The obvious is there are more Covid cases and some people will die from it. Some will suffer long term, perhaps permanent, damage.
And then there are my self-centered reasons. I need to be more cautious when I do go out in public. I must be sure I have my mask and avoid mass gatherings. (No, I don’t like wearing a mask. I consider it the responsible thing to do, for myself and others even though I have had the vaccine.)
I have other selfish concerns too. Will the folks I used to visit still be at the nursing home? A few of them probably died in the year and a half since I was last there. Will they still be able to remember us? Shelby is 11 1/2 years old now. She had just turned 10 when last we visited. That is a long time in dog years. I have no doubt that she will still do a fine job and be a reliable partner for me. She may tire faster than she used to and I will have to pay attention to know if she needs a break. I will also need to think about training a younger dog to take her place when it is time for her to retire. I like to train my new dog with the old one. They learn faster and take cues from the old pro. I have found this to be the best way to train a therapy dog for me. And it’s best if I do it over a long period of time. Months, at least. I can teach a dog the basics faster, but giving the new dog time to ease into it and process the adjustments has given me dogs that I feel are more confident and trustworthy.
A therapy dog needs time not only to learn the obedience and desired behaviors and responses. The dog needs to feel that he and I are a team. He needs to know that I will always look out for his safety and best interests. He must know that we are working together and he can trust me to have his back. These things take time. A relationship on this level cannot be built quickly. I must earn the dog’s trust and respect just as much as he must earn mine. A good dog/handler relationship is a beautiful thing!