Updated: Apr 28, 2018
Brooke Mallory’s dogs, Ottis and Nikki, are “facility therapy dogs” and they are certified Canine Good Citizens.
Ottis has been foster brother to hundreds of dogs throughout his life. Nikki was adopted from Motley Zoo Animal Rescue as a hospice case- a long-term foster who is suffering from a variety of terminal issues. We are offering her “final refuge”; she will die in Brooke’s care. But before that, she has work to do with Ottis!
Jme: Why did you want to do (visiting) therapy work with your dogs?
Brooke: My grandfather had Alzheimer’s and after my grandmother passed away, he was moved into an Alzheimer’s care facility. This was a really hard transition for him. He had just lost his wife, which he would go in and out of remembering, and he was cognizant enough at the time to realize he was losing his mind, and his independence. He was very angry and scared. The care facility had a dog and a cat that lived at there. Also, visitors were able to bring their dogs, so my aunt would bring her dogs with her when she visited. I witnessed firsthand the joy and comfort these animals brought my grandfather, who had always loved animals and owned dogs his whole life. It was maybe the only thing at the time that gave him comfort. From that moment, I had always wanted to be able to volunteer in this way with my dogs, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it, and life got busy. Years later, I learned of the Seattle Humane Society’s Visiting Pet Friends program program while I was a key note speaker at one of their town hall meetings. That same day, I emailed them their Visiting Pet Friends Director and got the ball rolling. I knew that not only was it something the residents would enjoy, but that I would really enjoy it, as would my dog Ottis.
Jme: How long did it take for you to become certified?
Brooke: The certification process greatly depends on what organization you are volunteering through. In order to not spin your wheels, it’s best to first find a quality organization in your area that offers a facility therapy dog program. From there you can determine the steps you need to take to qualify for their program. For the Seattle Humane Society’s Visiting Pet Friends program, they require that dogs have a Canine Good Citizen(CGC) certificate, which is obtained through the AKC. If you have a different type of pet, such as a cat or a lizard, you do not need to take that step as there is no such certification available. Once the CGC has been obtained, if applicable, they schedule and in-person meeting with their Visiting Pet Friends Director, during which the director will perform a behavioral evaluation with the pet, as well as talk the owner through the process and make sure they are prepared for the task at hand. In addition, they require proof of current vaccinations; an exam within 30 days that states the pet is in good health; a negative fecal within 30 days, and proof of homeowner’s or renter’s insurance.
For the Canine Good Citizen test, you and your dog need to have advanced training skills as a team. To pass the test, they require all items to be completed perfectly, and only allow for a re-do of one item at the end of the test, at the discretion of the AKC representative. This must be independent of behavior responses such as fear or anxiety- a dog would not be allowed to repeat for that; that would be a disqualification. If you and your dog are new to obedience training, the first step is to complete beginning and intermediate training classes with your dog. Once you have on-leash and off-leash control of your dog and you feel ready for the test, I highly recommend taking a CGC prep training class, with a trainer who specializes in CGC testing. That is the biggest advice I can give.
The class will help you practice all the test items, so that when it comes to the actual test, you aren’t so nervous. Because, no matter now well trained you and your dog are as a team, when you get nervous, you are going to make mistakes, and so will your dog. By practicing the actual test items in a prep class repeatedly until they are second nature, which will give you a huge advantage when your mind is buzzing with nerves. For the CGC prep class that I took with Ottis and then with Nikki, the CGC test was taken on the last day of class, so it was also super convenient too. The instructor had an AKC testing representative come to the class facility to conduct the test, which gave me and my dogs a home field advantage because we were already familiar with and comfortable in the space.
Jme: What is one of the requirements of the certification process that surprised you?
Brooke: One thing that I think a lot of people overlook when considering if they want to do this line of work, is that it’s important that your dog actually enjoys their time volunteering. Even if you have the best-behaved dog, that doesn’t mean he is necessarily a good candidate for this work. During the process of getting certified, it is as important to the organization that your dog is enjoying himself, as it is that your dog is safe to interact with the public. During testing, they are not only looking to ensure your dog can tolerate rough petting from strangers, as an example of one of the test items, they are also looking to ensure your dog enjoys the rough petting. There is a huge difference between tolerance and enjoyment. As much as a handler may be passionate about volunteering in this way, that doesn’t always translate to their pet. It’s truly teamwork that requires dedication from both sides of the leash.
Jme: How much time do you spend doing therapy work each month?
Brooke: I’ve been volunteering as a Visiting Pet Friends team with my dog Ottis for three years now. Nikki was just recently certified, so I’ve been volunteering with her for about four months. We typically volunteer once a month, although occasionally we volunteer twice per month. The visits typically last one hour. I would love to volunteer more, but I work multiple jobs. I think many people are concerned about the time commitment and that may deter them from volunteering, but even with my crazy schedule, I can always find 1hr per month to give my time, and the residents are always grateful. Most programs ask that you commit to a minimum of one visit her month, for a minimum of six months.
Jme: What is one suggestion you’d make to someone considering therapy dog work?
Brooke: My biggest tip is to take a CGC prep class, no matter how well-trained you and your dog are as a team, even just for the sake of helping you get over your nerves. This will also help you practice and learn all the specific rules for each test item, to the point that it becomes second nature to you, so that when you are nervous, you don’t make mistakes.
But I have another tip in terms of volunteering. It’s really important to keep in-tune with your dog while working. It is surprisingly exhausting for the animal. While it seems like easy work for the dog to give and receive love, it actually takes quite the toll on them. It seems almost as though they physically are taking the burdens from all the people they meet, on to their own shoulders while they work the room. As such, it’s important to always pay close attention to your pet, and as soon as they seem ready to be done, no matter if you have been there for a short time or not, that’s when you need to end the visit. While our visits typically last an hour, there have been times I’ve had to end the visit as soon as 20 minutes, and there have been times I’ve stayed as long as 90 minutes.
Both Nikki and Ottis are always very tired after their volunteer shifts, as if they had just gone on a 10-mile run. It truly is a tough job being cute! I see it firsthand! I will say that typically they build their stamina the more times they visit the same facility, because they start to learn the location and the people, so it’s less new over time, but ever visit is different, and every day is different, so their stamina can fluctuate from visit to visit.
Brooke fosters for Motley Zoo, works as a pet sitter and is an award winning photographer. You can see her work at Brooke Mallory Photography.