Paws For Smiles

This article was written by Air Force Brat Jan Wertz for the Sheltie Pacesetter. It tells how her dog, Penny, became a Therapy Dog and what she does.

Jan Wertz' father and Penny

Jan Wertz’ father and Penny


Penny knows what Tuesday means for her. When I put the blue and yellow bandanna on my little sable Sheltie girl, she knows she is about to work as a Therapy Dog at a local elder care residence facility. A few minutes later, she is at work visiting and making the elderly residents smile. Our first stop is in the small, very tidy, apartment of a lady who is 101 years old. The woman’s hands are gnarled by arthritis, but she gently strokes Penny’s ears and around her face. And the tired look of resignation is replaced with a soft smile of happiness. Penny regards the petting as her due; a retired show winner she knows she is royalty. Her dark brown eyes regard the elderly lady with calm acceptance. A moment later, she tells us stories of her family and her own dogs from times past. She is no longer an elderly resident who has outlived her friends and many of her family, but in memory she relives happier times and is content. The look on Penny’s face says she understands every word. This is one of the things a Therapy Dog does.

Getting to this point took time and training. Like most people, I had seen the volunteers and their therapy dogs working their kind miracles on many television shows. I decided I wanted to do that myself. In Penny, a gorgeous sweet-natured retired show dog, I had the perfect dog to team up with. I began by taking little Penny to beginner obedience school. I knew she was used to being in public with other dogs, and wanted to get her used to working with me. Aside from a trained reluctance to sit (a definite No No in the conformation ring), she performed brilliantly!

The next step involved learning how to actually become a dog and handler therapy team. My search began on the internet. The first thing I learned was that there was more than just one group I could earn registration through. Although it is possible to go on visits to a nursing home if you bring along your dog’s veterinary records, it is an advantage for you to join a recognized group, both for the information in their handbook, and the documentation of your dog’s temperament, as well as for the liability insurance they provide for their members. In return for a small yearly membership fee, the dog and handler team are covered in case of a mishap with a resident of a facility. I am told that tripping over the dog (especially if it is small) and nicks in thin elderly skin from a toenail are the most common. However, the insurance isn’t all that expensive, which indicates such happenings tend to be rare.

Then I learned was that it wasn’t going to be all that easy. Like many things that look simple, Therapy Dog work can be deceptively complex. Some groups, such as Therapy Dogs Inc., put their How To handbook online. Another group, sold a handbook, a seminar and lessons. I ended up going to the seminar, buying the hand book, and Penny and I took the 3 lessons- all for a tidy sum. When it was over, Penny had earned her Canine Good Citizen from AKC.

By this time I had met with some other ladies who were also working to register with their dogs who were also working to become recognized therapy teams. These three ladies had worked in Therapy for years. Two were registering with new dogs. One was a friend I had known for years, but hadn’t known did Therapy Dog work. As a group, we chose to be registered with Therapy Dogs Inc.

Joining TDInc. as therapy teams meant each of us and our dogs would have to pass a temperament and skills test, followed by three observed visits to nursing home or physical therapy rehabilitation facilities ( two if the dog had a CGC like Penny did), then pass an ‘open book’ quiz over the information in the online handbook, and write a ‘cover letter’ telling why we wanted to become a Therapy Dog team. If the dog had not earned a CGC, two letters of recommendation were also required.

OK, we were all ready to start passing our tests! The nearest evaluator didn’t live in Memphis, but in a small town an hour or so away. We agreed to meet her in Jackson, TN. The temperament test would take place in a large pet supply store there. If all went well, we would then go to a local nursing home for our practical observation exam. And, all did go well! Penny sparkled! Customers in the store were used as ‘friendly strangers’ to test the dogs’ responses to people. After a stop for lunch- we ate on a restaurant’s outdoor patio- it was on to the nursing home. Penny proved to be a natural! Nobody could resist the little golden sable sheltie with the white trim and soft brown eyes.

One resident hugged my girl, and informed me that Penny was HER dog…! A physical therapist almost cried as she petted my beautiful girl; Penny reminded her of the sheltie her family had when she was growing up. In one of the resident’s rooms, Penny gave such melting “I love you” looks to the elderly lady there that I began to wonder… until I saw the cookie the lady had in her lap! It was time to move on. All of the dogs did wonderfully. Sammie the beardie was sweet, and with her wheelchair accessible height, a big hit! As were the two Dalmatians, and Boss, the yellow Labrador with the soulful eyes.

The next observation took place in the elder care facility visit here in Memphis. This was the first time any of the dogs, including Penny, had been there. The afternoon’s BINGO game was breaking up, so there were plenty of people for the dogs to meet and visit with. The residents went from feeling ho-hum with the usual routine to excited and delighted! There is nothing like bright happy eyes, a canine smile and a wagging tail to make people happy! And we had brought four teams!! Our furry teammates soon had everybody smiling! Our observer had many good things to say in her reports about us all!

We finished up the required paperwork previously mentioned, mailed it all in, and waited to hear if we had been accepted. We all were!! And, now that we had our proper ID cards, and Penny her blue bandanna to wear, my sheltie and I began making regular visits to the elder care facility.

Penny has done more than just bring smiles to the resident’s faces. One of the young ladies who works there was terrified of dogs. But, she braved up, and petted Penny on our first visit. Since then, that residents’ assistant has come to view my little furry girl as her special friend. No longer fearful, she now confidently comes up and strokes Penny’s head. And, the way Penny smiles, I think my little golden girl knows she has helped the girl conquer her fears.

Penny is also able to reach some of the ‘memory residents’ whose dementia causes them to not be responsive to other people. Previously non-speaking, at the sight of little Penny one man remembered he had had a hound to go hunting with when he was a teenager. He told the resident manager (who usually accompanies us on our rounds) and me all about that dog of long ago as he rubbed Penny’s ears. It seemed that ol’ hound dog never had been much good at huntin’, but he sure could chase a rabbit! This was a real break-through as he hadn’t spoken for weeks.

Penny At WorkTherapy dogs are also very good at working with children. There are reading programs, which use dogs. A child might be too self-conscious to read aloud to an adult, such as a parent or teacher. That hesitation can vanish when a patient dog is involved. The dog never judges, and is not intimidating. And, if the teacher or handler needs to correct a reading error, they can tell the child that the dog isn’t sure what the word was… One of the other ladies does this work, teaching children with her yellow lab. Penny and I have yet to qualify for this specialty.

Working with patients in physical therapy is another area where Therapy Dogs can make a big difference. Patients in such programs are required to exercise an injured arm or leg by performing many repetitions of the exercises required to strengthen and regain use of the affected area. If the patient has been injured, such as in a car accident or a fall, these exercises can be both boring and painful. Enter the Therapy Dog, and boring is banished! Relearning how to keep balance on an injured leg is much less difficult if the exercise involves playing ‘fetch’ with a Therapy Dog. And, because the dog’s presence is also a mental diversion, pain perception is diminished when attention is given to the dog rather than to the discomfort of the injury.

One of the Therapy teams I know goes to visit schools along with firemen. The lesson of Stop, Drop and Roll!! is easy for small children to remember when it is demonstrated by a dog!

A well-trained Therapy Dog team with a patient dog who has a good stable temperament can work wonders in many settings. The smiles that greet Penny and me are beyond price as my little therapist gives the gift of happiness to all she meets. Tomorrow we will be going visiting again, as support for another new prospective handler and dog who will be visiting at the elder care residence with the evaluator. We always need good new teams. And shelties are a breed of dog who have proven their worth as canine therapists with the gift for giving smiles.

Therapy Dog work, like any other, has its little details to be remembered, and not all of them are listed in the Rules or Manual. Here are a few I’ve learned in the fairly short time that Penny and I have been making our visits.

1.) Do not wear jewelry, especially pierced earrings or something around your neck. Alzheimer’s patients, like small children, can reach for sparkly things. It wouldn’t be fun if someone grabbed a pierced earring or yanked on a pendant on a chain around your neck. Don’t count on knowing which residents have Altzheimer’s either.

2.) It is VERY important to teach your dog the “Leave It!” command. Residents are on medications, many of them pills. A pill on the floor, or accidentally dropped in front of a dog by a resident, or even given to the dog by a memory challenged patient could be lethal if your dog eats it. So teach your dog using colorful candies you drop on the floor.

When the dog obeys the ‘Leave It!’, reward the dog with a treat From Your Hand- NOT the one on the floor!!! You do NOT want your dog to think its OK to nibble from the floor. So, NEVER give your a dog a treat from the floor under ANY circumstances!! You dog might not know the difference between a treat on the floor at home or on the floor of a facility you are visiting. Your dog’s life can depend on this.

3.) Be on time for your visits. You may have no idea how much the residents look forward to your visits. It can be devastating for a resident who is looking for you to understand why you didn’t come. If you have to cancel a visit, if possible do so far enough in advance that you can reschedule the visit, possibly a day early- few people object to an early visit.

4.) Your dog depends on you for safety- be your dog’s protector. An Alzheimer’s patient’s idea patting the dog can be more like pounding to your little buddy. Be ready to put your hand in between the oncoming ‘pat’ and your dog, then redirect it to a gentle stroking, while telling your resident how much your dog likes to be stroked “like this”, and carefully guide the person’s hand. Your dog will thank you!<Smile! >

5.) Therapy Dogs Inc. does not really encourage treats. If your dog is in any way grabby about treats, Don’t Give Any. Just say your dog isn’t allowed to have any. But some residents want to give them, and if your dog is gentle about accepting a treat, I recommend taking along one of those little plastic enclosed 6 inch long pieces of string or cheddar cheese from the cheese area of the grocery store. The plastic sleeve keeps it from being messy and greasy in your pocket, or wherever. I recommend cheese rather than a hard dog cookie or bits of kibble. A memory resident may forget that it was intended for the dog, and eat it… Dog biscuits are hard enough to possibly break a resident’s tooth. Show the resident how to give the treat by placing it on the flat palm of the resident’s hand so your dog couldn’t possibly get a bit of resident’s finger along with the cheese. Likely the reason TDInc. doesn’t recommend the giving of treats. But some residents will try to insist.

6.) You will need to have some items with you ‘just in case’. A zip-lock bag with a paper towel in case a canine ‘accident’ needs cleaning up. (Ask an employee on the floor where to put the filled bag.) A fold-up dog bowl in case your dog needs a drink. A long leash in case your dog acts like a trip ‘out’ is needed. You will be walking your dog on a 4 ft or shorter leash in the facility. An additional such leash is a good idea, also a 6 ft leash in case one of the residents wants to ‘help’ you walk the dog. That resident is likely to be a child or someone in physical rehabilitation. A soft brush- NO metal bristles! Some residents will enjoy brushing the dog. And such a brush can be used by physical therapy patients should they be trying to re-acquire hand eye coordination or recovering from a hand injury. Such work is done under the direction of a physical therapist.

7.) The easiest way to carry these items around is in a ‘fannie pack’.

That way you aren’t always trying to find a safe place to put a purse, nor will you need to have a tote bag to carry around. Mine is large enough to also hold my sun glasses and a small wallet with my driver’s license.



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