Volunteering with a therapy dog? Look out for fake registries.

Volunteering with a therapy dog? Look out for fake registries.

I love the idea of therapy dogs – that is, dogs who have a special affinity for humans, who love nothing more than to offer up their bodies and eye contact and affectionate behavior for the enjoyment of humans. Therapy dogs are those who are taken by their handlers (usually their owners) to visit humans who may enjoy a visit with a friendly dog. The clients may be trauma survivors (including emergency responders who have been traumatized by their work), patients in hospitals, juveniles in detention facilities, stressed-out college students, kindergartners who are learning to read, or seniors in assisted living facilities. The therapy dog’s role may be to simply allow people to hug and pet him, to entertain with simple tricks, or to lie quietly on a patient’s bed or by their side.

People who have observed that their dogs have a special rapport with humans, and who are themselves interested in helping other humans, may decide to seek out opportunities for volunteering with their dogs in a therapeutic fashion. To do so, they generally endeavor to develop their dogs’ skills at communicating in an especially friendly fashion, and invest a lot of time in training and socializing their dogs. The owners also generally spend time desensitizing their dogs to unexpected behavior and all sorts of medical or assistive devices that recipients of therapy dog visits might employ, so the dog doesn’t become alarmed or anxious, no matter what’s happening around him.

The question always arises: How do people who have dogs who would be excellent at therapy dog work find places and people for their dogs to visit?

A great example of a therapy animal organization

Sometimes the dog’s owner is already connected to a population of people who would benefit from a therapy dog. Maybe you have a friend who works in a skilled nursing facility, or a daughter who works for the county library’s literacy program, and the management is open to the idea of therapy dog visits – great! I have a friend who is a classroom aide in a juvenile detention facility; her little dog, Samson, gets to accompany her to work and is available to the students (and staff!) for therapy. In my friend’s case, she already had access to the population she’d like to help; then she worked to get Samson ready. She took a therapy dog class with a local trainer, who guides students through basic training and desensitization. And she registered Samson and herself with a therapy animal organization and passed an in-person evaluation with an evaluator for the organization.

I should note that while Samson does therapy work at my friend’s place of work, my friend also volunteers his services elsewhere. The hours of therapy work logged by dogs who accompany their owners to their places of employment do not count toward the hours of volunteer work required by the therapy dog organization he is registered with, nor are those hours covered by the organization’s insurance for therapy dog volunteer work.

Sometimes a dog owner uses the connections of an existing therapy animal organization to find prospective clients. The group that Samson is registered through is Pet Partners, a national organization based in Bellevue, Washington. Pet Partners maintains a searchable database of registered volunteers and locations who would appreciate therapy dogs’ visits, helping those parties find each other.

Pet Partners requires that owners take several online classes, so they are informed about dog body language, recognize the signs of stress, and know how to advocate for and protect their dogs from stress or overexposure. They also learn about hygiene and infection control, in order to protect clients, themselves, and their dogs. It’s a terrific organization!

Unethical, and antithetical to volunteer work

But you need to be aware that not all organizations operating in this space are legitimate. In fact, I was prompted to write this post after seeing a Facebook post headlined, “How to Make Money With Your Therapy Dog.” WHAT?

(Hint: Volunteer work should never be undertaken for money. And helping others should be the only motivation to subject your dog to what can be draining, emotional experiences.)

This post was on the page of an organization calling itself Therapy Dogs International. (Never mind that there is already another group that calls itself Therapy Dogs International, supposedly in 1976.) The Facebook page for the group (called Therapy Dogs Inc, no doubt because the Therapy Dogs International name was already taken on Facebook) posted on May 31, purporting to help you make money by signing your dog up for therapy dog work (ugh!).

Disgusted, I started to research this group. Facebook offers something called “Page Transparency.” You can click on those words on any given Facebook page to see whether the owner of the page is “confirmed” (the owner of this page is not) and when the page was created. In this case, the page was created on March 10, 2020.  Yet somehow, the group has almost 15,000 followers on Facebook already. Weird.

And it only gets weirder when you click over to the group’s own website, which invites you to register your own dog for free, so you can start to sign up for some of this potentially money-earning therapy dog work.  

Well, of course I registered my dog Otto – it was free! Why not? And that’s when the first “opportunity” knocked: I could order copies of Otto’s official therapy dog registration card for just $39! And a tag for just $25! And a vest with a “Therapy Dog” patch, for just $136.95!

No, I didn’t order any of those things. But I’ll wait to see if I ever get contacted to volunteer to provide therapy dog services to anyone in my area – or simply start getting inundated with junk mail or spam emails or calls (I presume they sell their mailing lists).

The site also contains “news” stories about other “therapy dogs,” as if they were dogs who are registered with the group. If you use Google just a bit, you will quickly learn that the stories about each of the dogs featured on the site have been copied from various news sources. Well, in their defense, it doesn’t explicitly say those dogs are registered with Therapy Dogs International; one has to use one’s critical thinking and reading skills to figure that out.

Let me be clear: My dog is not a therapy dog, and I will not be pimping him out to provide this admirable and valuable service for which we are completely unqualified. I am certain that this group is trolling for more “free” dog registrations, using the concept that one could make money in the form of “donations” as bait, in order to have the opportunity to sell identification cards, dog tags, and vests for fake therapy dogs. Scratch a little deeper on the site and you find that you can also buy all those things for your fake service dog, emotional service animal, PTSD dog, medical alert dog – or you can “make your own patch!”

Folks, if you want to volunteer your dog for therapeutic visits, do your homework, take a class, look for a reputable organization to evaluate your dog and register with an organization that will appreciate what you and your dog have to offer with no compensation whatsoever, and never identify your dog as something he’s not.

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