Becoming a Therapy Dog: Our First Visit and More

Living in the North Georgia Mountains has so many advantages. The beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain range graces our area with many gorgeous views year round. People enjoy visiting, as well as making the area their home or home away from home. Hiking, rafting, tubing and much more are available here and in many of the surrounding counties. It is a somewhat rural area with many historic areas to visit, shop, and explore. Jasper, Ellijay, and Blue Ridge provide a wonderful place to live and raise a family, as well as retire. One of the newer things to our area, is many assisted living centers.

As I mentioned in “Finding the Right Puppy for the Purpose, Temperament is Key”, through advice from a good friend, and a lot of prayer, I realized that when I retired from teaching, I wanted a puppy to train for the purpose of becoming a Therapy Dog. I assumed because I was a teacher, and had worked in the county for 35 years, my therapy dog would be a Reading Dog. He would go into the schools, and allow children to read to him, beginning readers, reluctant readers, experienced readers, that was my goal. Indeed that did happen, but God had other plans for Charlie as well.

Before I go any further, let me share a moment from my past. At the age of 16, I belonged to an organization, and we as a group made what was my first visit to a nursing home. While walking through the common area, one little lady, thought I was her grand daughter. She grabbed me, and would not let go. I had very long hair, and she it wrapped between her fingers using both hands. It took two orderlies to get her to let go; we were all but on the floor. Needless to say, I never wanted to go back, or to any other facility, but God had a plan.

As a teacher and leader of Junior Beta Club, and later Student Council, the student volunteers always wanted to go to the nursing home at Christmas. I was able to circumnavigate their request the majority of the time. However, there were about four or five times in my 35 of teaching for Gilmer County Schools, out of pure necessity I took the students, and we visited, sang Christmas Carols, and tried to bring joy to the residents. I went because I had to, and left as quickly as possible with a sign of relief, as nothing bad happened to anyone.

God’s Plan for Charlie and His Therapy Dog Team

Now, we have this beautiful puppy, and had just enrolled him in formal education / training classes. A friend who lives on the East side of Atlanta, contacted me. He informed me that his mother was in the assisted living center in Jasper, and that when he had gone to visit his mom, he told the director about Charlie. He gave me her number saying she was a dog person, and wanted me to contact her about bringing Charlie to visit the residents.

A little shocked, a little afraid, and certainly not what I had planned, my thoughts raced, and I remembered telling God that I want to use this Puppy he had brought into our lives, to bring honor to HIM, and Joy to others. It was the first week of July, and too early for Charlie to go into the schools. In addition, we were just beginning to formally educate Charlie. Reluctantly, I said, “Okay, Lord, if this is YOUR Will for this puppy, I will investigate.”

I made the phone call, spoke with the director, and explained that Charlie was just beginning to train, that he had no experience, and that he was only 5 and 1/2 months old; he was still very much a puppy. She told me the activities director would be in touch with me to set up a visit. Indeed, the next day the activities director called, and was very encouraging. He agreed to let me just bring the puppy, and allow Charlie to look and smell around, meet the staff, and see if this was something they really wanted to take on. Shocked, excited, and scared above all else, because of my experience as a teen with seniors in a nursing home, I shared all this with my husband Mike, and asked him to go with me.

Understand, that in my mind, Charlie was MY retirement puppy, to train and take to the schools. Now, God was opening a door, and I needed my husband, who had been working with Charlie as well, in formal education and training, to come with me, and pretty much support me, as I overcame my personal fears.

This is Miss Pat. She was the first resident I met as I began my journey to become a therapy dog

We went to Jasper, and we were greeted by my friend Scott’s mother, Pat. There she was in her wheel chair to take us in to meet the director. We introduced Charlie to the director and staff. We toured the facility, and met some of the residents. We made sure they knew Charlie was “training” to be a therapy dog, and was not certified. They asked that we bring his shot records, and then give them a copy of each diploma that he earned. Mike, Charlie, and I were instantly in love with the Assisted Living Center, the staff and the residents. We started the next Monday at 11 AM, in the Black Bear Den, and Memory Care. We made private visits to residents in their rooms who for one reason or another were unable to leave and join the large group meeting with Charlie. Isn’t God Amazing!!!! He opened a door that I would have never opened, HE helped me overcome my fears, and allowed this to be a ministry that my husband and I would do together. Oh and by the way, the residences call him “Charming Charlie”.

I am so thankful that the Lord used Scott, and his now departed mother, to use Charlie in ways I never dreamed would occur. I am limited, but God is not! I am eternally grateful to Bonnie Galluccio for her love for dogs, her keen insight to the healing they can provide for senior adults, and her willingness to be used by God to give our “ Puppy with a Purpose” his start on a journey to become a Therapy Dog.

As one who enjoys social media, of course I posted what my “Puppy with a Purpose” was doing. This lead to another invite to an assisted living center in Ellijay. This facility was a little different from the one in Jasper. It had an elevator, which Charlie had to learn to ride, while practicing his manners when others where riding with us. At this facility, there were no large group areas. We pretty much only made room visits to residents who loved animals, and missed the ones they had left behind.

All the while, Charlie was going through his weekly education and training classes. This was wonderful because Charlie, my husband, and I were learning to become a therapy dog team. We were able to put into practice what we were learning each week in class, at the two assisted living centers.

Posting on social media about Charlie’s progress, as well as the joy Mike and I were gaining as we visited each week, lead to a follow up post from a sweet lady I had known for many years. She asked if I would give her my phone number, as she wanted to talk with me about Charlie and what we were doing.

This amazing lady, was the director of volunteers, for a local Hospice organization. She told me that in order to get federal funding for their organization, they had to have 10% of their work force be volunteers. She asked me if I would be willing to go through their training program, and then continue to do what I was already doing with Charlie, except to visit specific residents who were under Hospice care. This would add one more assisted living center; it was in Blue Ridge. I agreed, saying once again, “Ok Lord, this was not what I planned, but if it’s what you want, I will use this puppy for you!” Now Mike and I were visiting three assisted living centers, and I had yet to hear from the school. I hope it is clear that I did not ask for any of these opportunities. I wouldn’t have due to my past experience. I stand amazed, that God would orchestrate all of this, with me having nothing to do with it.

Charlie Begins to Work at the School

Now it was fall and the beginning of school was past. Things were settling into place, and the call came to come and visit the school, and see if we could find a way to start visiting classrooms, and allow the children to read to Charlie. Charlie and I made several after school visits to let him acclimate to the school setting, as he had only been to assisted living centers. Everything went very well. Working with the school administration, we formulated a plan of what a classroom visit might look like. Then we discussed what might take place in a classroom with Charlie. We set up two after school meetings with the teachers’ children and Charlie to see how he would do. He was only 8 months old, and still very much a puppy, who could get excited, but LOVED children.

The after school visits with the teachers’ children went exceptionally well! My dream to have a Reading Dog was coming to fruition. Charlie began to visit the school every Tuesday and Thursday, and occasional Fridays. He visited every classroom from Pre-K through 5 and Special Education at least one time, and several classes received a second visit. The Children ALL loved Charlie. They would see him in the hallway and get excited, and Charlie would get excited too. One time as we were leaving and had to pass near the lunchroom, and the line of children, they started cheering and chanting his name. The teachers and staff love him, and seemed to really look forward to his visits. When Charlie would come into a class, depending on the age of the children, they would read to him, or tell him about the book which they were reading, or the story that had been read to them. It was very real to the children, they even showed him pictures from their books. “Look Charlie, see the snowman?” The older children would read their chapter books, and pet him while reading. He usually spent 45 minutes to an hour in a class, and most days he would visit two or three classes, with a potty break in between. March 12, 2020 was the last class visit Charlie made, before the Corona Virus closed down the schools for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year.

I will tell you, to go from four to five days a week of visits, people petting and loving on Charlie, to suddenly nothing, was very difficult for him. Please know that we love on and pamper, spoil this dog, but Charlie missed his friends. He missed the way the children hugged him, the way they laid on him, the way the residents played with him, and talked lovingly to him. Charlie was truly sad.

Mike and I started taking more walks with Charlie, and the other dogs. We took longer walks, and used interactive toys, to help keep Charlie, his brother and sister engaged at home. However, Charlie often would lie with his head between his paws, and just look at us. If I was getting ready to go to the grocery store pick up, he start jumping around and would run to where his leash was. After awhile he stopped doing that. He realized he wasn’t going anywhere.

Thank goodness for our neighbor, Pastor Asa. Ask would let Charlie come over to his house, and he would love and pet on him, and take him for walks. They would jump around and play together. This helped to replace some of what Charlie was missing. Asa and his wife, Debbie were Charlie’s first friends. Charlie bonded with them when he first came home. In November of 2019, Debbie passed away suddenly. We all were in shock. With his almost daily visits to Asa’s house during the lockdown, Asa said, “Charlie is now providing some needed therapy for me.” Asa was therapy for Charlie, and Charlie for Asa. To this day, they have a very unique and special bond, a love that I think only the two of them and God really understand.

A Summary of Steps to Become a Therapy Dog Team

  1. Enroll in education /training classes with the goal of taking and passing the Canine Good Citizen Test (youtube videos show what the dog and handler must do.)
  2. Practice, Practice Practice what is being covered in class as you strive to become a Therapy Dog Team
  3. Take the Canine Good Citizen Test
  4. Decide on the type of therapy work which best suits the dog’s temperament and the handler’s abilities. (See blog page: Man’s Best Friend , Training/Educating With a Goal in Mind; Therapy Dog Organizations)
  5. Contact the Organization and apply, follow their recommendations and requirements

As of right now (May 2020), due to the Corona Virus shut downs, Charlie is not yet a certified therapy dog. We are doing our Best to keep reviewing all he has learned, and introduce more things. We know that during the assisted living center visits, the residents often like to see Charlie do new tricks or things he had learned. Charlie can do High-Five and Shake with different paws. We have worked with that to say “Hi” with the High-Five or right paw, and “Bye” with the Shake or left paw. Charlie now knows “Paws Up” and we are working on “Roll Over” and “Touch”. There is a AKC Trick Title and Ribbon which the dog can earn, and we are looking into that for Charlie.

In Jennifer Arnold’s book, Love is All You Need”, she gives many different cognitive lessons that can be used with the dogs. She also provides many bonding activities that will enhance the Therapy Dog Team. We are using those to keep Charlie up to date and ready when the time comes to test.

I also highly recommend several outstanding dog magazines which we read to keep us up to date on all types of issues and concerns with dogs.

  1. Whole Dog Journal
  2. AKC Family Dog
  3. Dogster Magazine
  4. The BARK
  5. Modern Dog