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Therapy Dogs

Shih Tzu Therapy Dogs

Overview

Therapy dogs are dogs of any breed, including mixes, that 'work' to provide comfort to people. There are other types of working dogs such as service and assistant dogs (that help an owner with specific tasks) or medical alert dogs; however therapy dogs are often supervised by their owner in such settings as hospitals and nursing homes for short sessions to cheer up residents and this is done on a volunteer basis, as the owner is not paid or reimbursed for this. 

They can even be helpful for such things as bringing a touch of comfort to those reeling from disasters such as hurricanes or tornadoes and are also sometimes brought to schools or to centers that aid people with learning disabilities. 

The idea of therapy dogs originated in 1976 with a registered nurse named Elaine Smith, who created the very first training program for dogs to visit hospital patients. And since that time, the idea of this has really taken off. 

Studies have proven that animal companionship offers many benefits to people struggling with illness, recovering from injury and/or coping with negative feelings such as loneliness. Having a visit from a therapy dog lowers stress and blood pressure, while lifting spirits exponentially. This section will cover:
  • The qualities that make a Shih Tzu a good candidate for being a therapy dog
  • What Shih Tzu therapy dogs do
  • How to get your Shih Tzu ready to become a therapy dog
  • An introduction to Gracie, an amazing Shih Tzu that is a certified therapy dog, along with a Q&A session with her owner
Shih Tzu Therapy Dog - Male
Porter is a 16 month old Shih Tzu living in Saratoga, New York with his owner Laura Toma and has been a Therapy Dog with Therapy Dogs International since May 2015. He loves to visit Assisted Living Facilities and has plans to visit a school for children with developmental disabilities. This lovable Shih Tzu and his owner will also be participating in special camps for Children of the Military, hospitals and other informational events. What can be said? His business is to love!
The Qualities of a Great Therapy Dog

While every Shih Tzu is beautiful and each are endearing in their own way, not every Tzu has the particular disposition that is needed to work as a therapy dog. With this said, when you look at the personality traits that are needed for a dog to be a successful therapy dog, it is common for this playful, outgoing and friendly breed to embody them all:

1) A genuine affection for all sorts of people. Some dogs are super lovable with their owners, but a bit shy or untrusting of strangers. For a Shih Tzu to work as a therapy dog, he or she must have a happy outlook towards everyone that they encounter, no matter the situation. While it is common for a dog to be brought to the same hospital or other setting on a regular basis, the dog must be up for anything… and able to be comfortable around people of all ages without needing to warm up to anyone. In addition, the Shih Tzu needs to be outwardly friendly in a controlled manner without being prompted. 
2) Ability to stay cheerfully calm. To be successful working as a therapy dog, a Shih Tzu needs to be calm enough that new settings do not faze him/her and does not get overly excited when meeting new people (such as barking or jumping up). Being calm also includes the ability to handle sudden noises (hospital buzzers, loud voices, etc.) and the possibility of lots of people crowding around the dog.
3) Aware of the needs of others. While the sight of any cute dog will often be enough to make a person smile, working as a therapy dog goes way beyond this. If a Shih Tzu is cut out for this sort of work, he/she will naturally be alert to the needs of others… the dog will initiate contact with those that are shy and truly enjoy making connections that bring joy to others. 

4) Obedience. To earn a certification, there is quite a bit of testing that involves perfectly listening to commands (more ahead). 
Do You Think Your Shih Tzu Could Work as a Therapy Dog?

If you feel that your Shih Tzu could possibly do well working as a therapy dog, that's great! Whether you have 2 hours a month or 10 hours a week to bring your Shih Tzu to places to cheer people up, it will make a huge difference in the lives of other people.

In order for a dog to be an official therapy dog, being sociable and obedient are two non-negotiable qualities that he/she must possess. If you are not quite sure that your dog would do well with this, you can start off by bringing your Shih Tzu to a senior center or other such facility (with permission) and see how things go.  

As you start to get a feel as to whether or not your Shih Tzu enjoys this sort of volunteering, you can then plan on having your dog earn his/her certificate to make things official. 
Steps that Lead to Being a Therapy Dog

At-home or group obedience training - You'll want to make sure that your Shih Tzu is right on point with all needed commands, including heeling. You can do this at home; however enrolling your dog into group training classes may be the best course of action, as this will add the elements of being with other dogs and other people, learning with distractions, and so forth. 

CGC- You may want to start off with having your dog earn the AKC's Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Award. While not necessary for the next step, this award that is earned by displaying good manners and obedience can give you a good idea if your Shih Tzu has the right temperament and skills in following commands that is needed for therapy work. 

As a side note, this is a good first step if you plan have your dog perform in AKC events such as obedience, agility or performance. 
Therapy Training & Programs - To start on the road to your Shih Tzu becoming an official therapy dog, you may wish to register with a large, country-wide organization or with one of the over 100 smaller groups that are centered in cities and districts around the U.S. 

Therapy Dogs International is one of the largest volunteer organization that educates, tests and awards certificates to dogs all over the United States and some parts of Canada. There are over 25,000 dogs currently registered with them. There are a few guidelines…let's take a look at some of them:

• A dog must be at least 1 year old
• The dog cannot have bitten anyone in the past
• The dog must have a clean bill of health and be up-to-date with all vaccinations
Shih Tzu therapy dog at hospital
Gracie, 2 years, 10 months old, ready to see patients at the hospital
Owners: Steve & Carol
Testing is quite extensive, some of this includes:

• The Shih Tzu must allow the evaluator to check all areas of the body, including paws and tail and the dog must show that he/she is fine with being touched.

• The Shih Tzu is walked by rooms with people in the hallways, displaying the ability to greet them and show friendliness. 

• Owner and dog must enter rooms a certain way… The owner enters first (to see if a particular person wishes to have a visit) and then the dog enters only if that is confirmed. 

• The Shih Tzu is tested on the commands of 'Heel', 'Sit', 'Down', 'Come' and 'Leave it' at various parts of the assessment. This last one is perhaps the most difficult with therapy dog testing, since it involves the dog obeying the command to not touch food that is being offered to him and/or not drinking from a bowl of water that is placed on the floor. This is to keep the dog safe since a patient could accidentally offer medicine to a dog instead of an actual piece of food and liquid on the floor could be hazardous. The Shih Tzu must not even lick the food being offered and cannot lap at the water at all, or he/she will fail the test. You'll want to have this command (and others) down pat before testing day.

• The Shih Tzu must show a willingness to greet and be petted by a variety of people. This includes those in wheelchairs (the dog is put on laps for some of this), with crutches and with walkers. 

• The Shih Tzu will be tested regarding distractions and his/her ability to stay by the owner's side and maintain his/her composure. This can include such things as someone dropping a heavy object or even someone skateboarding up behind the dog as he is being walked. At some point during the exam, there will be test volunteers letting out mock cries, moans and other such unsettling noises that one may encounter in a hospital setting. Another important 'distraction' test involves children behaving quite raucously and the dog is expected to calmly lie down with his back to the children. 

• There will be a 3 minute period when the owner must step away out of sight. During this time, the Shih Tzu is expected to remain unfazed and is not allowed to bark, whine or show any agitation. 

• The Shih Tzu will be tested as to how he/she reacts to other dogs (since other therapy dogs of any breed may also be volunteering at the same time).

In all, there are 13 tests, divided into 2 phases. Any growling, snapping or biting will automatically disqualify a dog. Even such things as not immediately recovering from being startled, acting shy or licking the offered food will result in not passing the course. If you register with Therapy Dogs International, you'll be given a manual and a DVD to be able to thoroughly practice with your Shih Tzu and then you can decide when you think he/she is ready. 
Meet Gracie, a Certified Therapy Dog

Gracie is a 2 year, 10 month old Shih Tzu that found her calling as a therapy dog beginning at the age of 1 year old. She shows a remarkable ability to be friendly with people of all ages and handles herself like a pro. She visits both senior citizens and hospital patients, showing an extraordinary level of empathy and affection. This Shih Tzu is the quintessential therapy dog, bringing cheer to those in need of reassurance and as you can see, she is super cute!
Shih Tzu working as therapy dog
Q & A - With Gracie's Owners

Gracie's owners, Steve and Carol Tamerius of Glendale, California, were kind enough to answer some questions about their Shih Tzu's work as a therapy dog:

Q: Hi guys, thanks so much for introducing us to Gracie. Can you tell us how it is that Gracie came into your life?

A: Well to begin with, we were looking for a Shih Tzu puppy. That breed seemed suited to us since we live in a condo and I have allergies. We began by looking in the various shelters in the area but were unable to find a Shih Tzu. I contacted the Shih Tzu Club of America for a list of breeders. One breeder of show dogs had one puppy she couldn't show because it had a "defect", one brown eye and one blue eye. We thought it was cute and fell in love with the little fuzz ball. When we picked her up, we hadn't decided on a name yet. When we turned on the car to head home, the first thing we heard was George Burns yelling, "Gracie!" on the old time radio channel on Sirius/XM. Gracie was one of five or six names we had on our list.
Shih Tzu therapy dog with owner
Gracie & Carol
Q: What made you even think about having her start work as a therapy dog? 

A: Ten years ago my mother was in a hospice facility in Ohio for cancer. Several times when I went to visit her, I met volunteers with their dogs. I saw how much joy it brought to the patients and I always thought that if I got a dog I would like to do that.

In late 2013, I took Gracie with me to a senior center. She was so good with the people that we began going regularly. Gracie earned her Canine Good Citizen award from the AKC soon after that, which allowed her to become a therapy dog at Glendale Memorial Hospital in March, 2014. We've been going to the hospital on Tuesdays and Thursdays for little over a year now.

A month ago, Gracie passed her test to earn a certification from Therapy Dogs International. 
Since that time, I've received several requests via TDI to take her to private homes, children's hospitals, and a facility for children with special needs.

Q: The testing to become certified with TDI sounds rather intense. How long did you practice for this?

A: We didn't actually practice with Gracie for the test. It was an accumulation of all the levels of obedience training she had received to that point. Most of what she learned in the classes was what was required for the test. I think there are some things you can't teach a dog, for example not getting spooked by a dropped chair or being friendly with strangers. Those are personality traits that a dog either has or doesn't have.

Unbeknownst to us, the test had actually begun when we checked in. Gracie was observed to evaluate her temperament while we were filling out the paperwork.

When it came time to take the TDI test, she was ready and passed the first time with no mistakes.

Q: Do you have any tips for owners that think that their Shih Tzu might do well as a therapy dog? 

The first step should probably be to take an obedience class to learn the required commands and to socialize your dog. Introduce the dog to as many other dogs and people as possible. As soon as Gracie received her required vaccinations as a puppy, we enrolled her in an obedience class and began taking her with us wherever we went to acclimate her to various situations, sounds, surroundings, and people.
Q: Can you tell us more about what it is that Gracie does during the visits?

A: Gracie seems to be a natural for this type of work.

Just like me, Gracie has her own photo ID badge that has to be scanned to enter the hospital area where she works! Once we're in the hospital, she make a bee-line for the administration offices where she greets everyone. Then we go to the various floors to visit with those patients who desire to see her. She also greets the nurses and hospital staff on the floors. 

After asking a patient if he or she would like to see Gracie, I either put her on the bed with them or on their lap (if they're in a wheelchair) so that they can pet her. Sometimes you discover that the patient has a dog at home that they dearly miss or that they recently lost their pet. So Gracie brings them a little cheer and they are grateful for the opportunity to be with a dog for a few minutes.
Shih Tzu trained as therapy dog
At the hospital a few weeks ago, she visited one patient who was in quite a bit of discomfort. Gracie had a calming effect on the lady. We left the room to see another patient, but when the lady cried out in pain, Gracie immediately turned around and headed back to the room and lay next to her for quite some time.

When we are done for the day, Gracie enjoys going with me to the cafeteria to get a treat for a job well done. Our girl is real delight. She never barks, other than to let us know that a stranger is at the front door. She has quite a personality.

Q: Does Gracie seem to know when it is time to 'work'? Does she ever have an 'off' day?

A: She's always ready to go to work. I really think she looks forward to it and seems to have a sense of what she's supposed to do. When we are on the floors with patients, she knows that it's work time, not play time. However, in the administrative offices, she's all play.

Q: What do you think is the most rewarding aspect of this… from Gracie's perspective and then from your own perspective?

A: Gracie loves being with people. She loves being petted and she senses that people are happy to see her. That's her reward. For me, I just love seeing the pleasure she gives to patients and the smiles she puts on their faces.

Thanks so much for sharing Gracie's story and photos with everyone; she is an amazing Shih Tzu!
A Final Thought

The Shih Tzu breed, in general, are popular as therapy dogs with their super cute expressions that can light up someone's day and their natural ability to be in tune to how others are feeling. While not every dog will have just the right temperament for this sort of volunteer work, if you feel that your Shih Tzu might be a good fit for this and enjoy it, why not give it a try? At the very least, working together to learn commands is an excellent method to bond with your dog. And if your Tzu someday becomes a volunteer worker, it can be a great way to give back to the community and share some love.
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