Think your dog has what it takes for therapy work? Here are the 15 tests it will have to pass to be certified by Therapy Dogs International:
1. Accepting a friendly stranger.
2. Sitting politely for petting.
3. Appearance and grooming.
4. Walking on a loose leash.
5. Walking through a crowd.
6. Sit and down on command/stay in place.
7. Coming when called.
8. Reaction to another dog.
9. Reactions to distractions.
10. Reaction to medical equipment.
11. Ignore food.
12. Acclimation to infirmities.
13. Supervised separation.
14. Approach a stranger for petting.
15. Reaction to children.
Unlike service animals, which have special protections and rights guaranteed by the Americans With Disabilities Act, therapy certification confers no special rights to dogs.
Learn more about therapy dog work at www.tdi-dog.org
From the moment Angie Jennings attaches blue and green threaded leashes to her West Highland terriers, Mic, 7, and Rudy, 3, they know it's time to go to work.
Jennings is the co-owner of Play Dog Excellent, a dog training and day-care facility on Dayton Boulevard. Both her dogs have been certified through Therapy Dogs International to work with her in schools, nursing homes and hospitals - any place where their presence would bring comfort to people in need.
Like most therapy dogs, they really love their jobs, Jennings said.
"A therapy dog has to want people, not just tolerate them," she said. "A true therapy dog wants to go to folks; it has to want to interact. I know my dogs are absolutely crazy about kids. That is their calling in life."
Since November, Jennings, Mic and Rudy have been regular visitors to Donna's Book Club, a Read Aloud Chattanooga program run by Donna Sutton at Brown Academy, a downtown magnet school.
Sutton first approached Jennings last fall when her students were reading Lois Duncan's novel "Hotel for Dogs." Sutton wanted a look-alike for the main dog, Friday, and Mic was a dead ringer.
Whenever Mic and Rudy pay a visit, the students read to them, which has proven to be a strong incentive to some otherwise lackluster readers, Sutton said.
"The dogs are such a positive motivator for the club," she said. "[The kids] absolutely are just drawn to these dogs. Sometimes, the dogs just bring it out. They're like magnets; they attract them."
While she's at the school, Jennings also stops by Melissa Tidwell's prekindergarten class. Mic and Rudy provide the children something most humans can't provide: nonjudgmental affection, Tidwell said.
"They welcome the dogs because the dogs are not telling them to do anything; they just get to interact," she said. "The dogs don't require anything from them, whereas teachers are constantly trying to pull information from them. They don't have to perform for them; they can just relax."
Handlers said therapy dogs' instinct to find the right person and a willingness to sit and listen or be petted is key to their ability to help people open up.
Bonita Rodgers has spent 25 years working as a testing evaluator for Therapy Dogs International, the organization that certifies animals for therapy work. In that time, she has witnessed many otherwise isolated individuals reach out to dogs.
Rodgers, who lives in Knoxville, has three therapy-certified dogs of her own: two Chihuahuas, Spike and Kilo, and a Doberman, Diva.
She and Spike often visit a blind woman with cerebral palsy at the Cerebral Palsy Center of Knoxville. Spike's ability to connect astonished the woman's longtime caretakers, Rodgers said.
"She's talking to Spike and telling him the story of her childhood, and this is someone who doesn't talk to anyone," Rodgers said. "It's a wonderful thing to see."
Like all Therapy Dogs International workers, Rodgers is a volunteer. She travels a corridor from Georgia to Kentucky, administering a 20- to 25-minute exam to prospective therapy dogs. Rodgers helped to write the exam along with Therapy Dogs International president Ursula A. Kempe and Dr. Mary Burch, the director of the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen obedience program.
Rodgers visits Play Dog Excellent about every six weeks to administer the test to classes of 10 to 13 dogs.
The exam piggybacks on the AKC course, which tests dogs on response to basic commands, grooming, demeanor in crowds and supervised separation from their owner.
Therapy dogs receive additional testing on reaction to medical equipment (crutches, canes, wheelchairs and walkers) and infirmities, ignoring food, willingness to approach strangers and reaction to children.
While certification is not mandatory to do therapy work, being certified lends credibility to an animal and handler. Therapy Dogs International certification lasts for a year and includes the added benefit of liability insurance for dogs working in therapy situations, Rodgers said.
Because most therapy dog handlers are highly motivated to prepare their animals for certification, the exam pass rate is high.
Some dogs just don't have what it takes, however. The one test that trips dogs up the most is staying with a stranger while their owner leaves the room for three minutes, Jennings said.
"There are some dogs - and I know it when I see them - that you can tell that it's not ever going to happen," she said. "We do everything we can to train them through it, but ... some dogs just aren't going to be separated from their owner."
No one breed is better suited than any other to be a therapy dog. The instinct for seeking out those in need is innate to individual animals, whether purebred or mutt, golden retriever or pit bull, Rodgers said.
"You can't train a dog to do this," she said. "There are a lot of beautifully trained dog that aren't suitable for this kind of work.
"It's born in the dog. It's in their hearts."
If they have it, though, they live for it, she added.
"The dogs can sense a person's needs. They do their absolute best, out of absolute love, to ease that burden for people."