Welcome to the world of a therapy dog

Updated: Mar 25

Just the mere thought of my dogs makes me smile. Even sitting next to them already brightens up my day. I feel happier. Calmer.

So I can just imagine the effect therapy dogs (and all other dogs, for that matter) have on people. But for this post, let’s focus on the former.

Therapy dogs are like furry superheroes – they are smart and intuitive, offer unconditional love, support and companionship, and do amazing work to help us humans.

They’re good-looking too. 😊

Take Coco, for example

Still, some misconceptions about them persist. I asked the team at Therapy Dogs Singapore (TDS) – a non-profit group that offers Pet Assisted Therapy (PET) and Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) to health institutions, schools and nursing homes, among others – to name some of them. It’ll help us get to know and appreciate them more.

#1 Therapy dogs are not just there to be cute and cuddly

“Many people think that therapy dogs only ‘sit and look pretty’, and don’t do much – but there’s actually a lot more to a therapy dog.

“Apart from providing basic companionship, a therapy dog also promotes the mental and social well-being of the patients through their interactions with them. Therapy dog activities vary, from snuggling with a patient, petting and feeding to more ‘advanced’ activities such as getting patients to play a game of fetch, or to walk the dog.

“Our canine volunteers are often a great way to break the ice during the sessions, and they’re often an avenue for patients to not only interact with the dogs, but also with one another at the same time.”

#2 They’re not just able to follow commands

“Another myth is that therapy dogs only need to be obedient. Although a basic level of obedience is required, our volunteer dogs also need to be of sound temperament, have a calm disposition and a more tolerant nature.

“These qualities are necessary, as in the course of therapy work the dogs may be handled by both adults and children who have little or no experience in handling animals.

“There are also certain situations that some dogs aren’t used to and require patience and tolerance, like the presence of multiple wheelchairs and patients with walking aids, to name a few. These might be alarming for some dogs.”

Our buddy here can probably handle it

They’re miracle workers

There’s no doubt about that. It also helps that they’re part of a wonderful community like TDS.

But for an even better idea of what therapy dogs can achieve, as well as their unique talents and skills, I talk to TDS volunteer Pirjo Nielsen and her adorable therapy dog Coco, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (yes, the pretty one in the first photo). Here, they reveal their milestones and most memorable experiences.

Pirjo and Coco are all smiles

It’s fascinating, the things you learn about dogs through the eyes of their owners (and vice-versa). 😊

#1 They meet new people and volunteers who love dogs, and who share the same purpose of contributing to society and to people who are less privileged

“For me, this has been an excellent and special opportunity to learn more about Singapore and to meet people from all walks of life.

“I’ve also discovered that all kinds of dogs make good therapy dogs, as long as they have a calm and friendly temperament. I’ve met tiny poodles, retired police dogs and Singapore specials, and they all bring their own personalities to the therapy sessions, making it fun for everyone!”

The more, the merrier

#2 They work with a small group of special needs children or students on a weekly basis

“We provide animal assisted therapy at the Special Student Care Centre under AWWA.

“Coco and I worked with a young boy with cerebral palsy; he was wheelchair-bound and had a limited range of movements in his arms. However, he was the most positive and cheerful student, always ready to participate in all of the activities. I’ll always remember his happy smile whenever he saw Coco.

“We can really see the progress that the students make in their social interactions, and the special bond they establish with the therapy dogs. It’s very heartwarming when a student gets attached to one of the dogs and they become friends.

“There’s also a special teacher at the centre who’s dedicated to the children, and her loving care for the students is an inspiration to everyone.”

#3 They arrange and enjoy ad hoc visits to elderly care centers and nursing homes

“We engage the residents in therapeutic and social activities. Earlier this year, we visited the Lee Ah Mooi Nursing Home, one of the oldest homes in Singapore, to bring some CNY cheer to the residents.

“It’s wonderful to see the excitement and happiness of the residents when we visit. They have a chance to interact with the many different dogs. The residents also have interesting stories of their own, which makes it even more special.”

#4 They have annual visits to NUS to help students cope with the stressful pre-exam season

“It’s always well received and good fun for the volunteers.

“I enjoy this event as we get to chat with the students about their plans for the future, and they also take great interest in the TDS dogs. Some students are also interested in volunteering, so it’s a good opportunity to get them involved.”

They also need a break

#5 Dog therapy and animal assisted activities are getting more popular and well-known in Singapore

“Last year, TDS volunteers participated in a road show organised by the Central Narcotic Bureau (CNB) to support their drive to engage citizens in meaningful activities.

“Recently, TDS volunteers were invited to a special book launch by the MINDS Fernvale Gardens School. The purpose of this event was to educate mainstream students about people with disabilities.”

They’re all grateful

Even if it does take some effort. “All of the TDS volunteers are contributing and spreading the good work by taking time in their busy schedules to participate in these various events,” Pirjo observes.

TDS volunteers, united

“The people working in these various schools and nursing homes really appreciate the TDS volunteers and their work. They are so kind and helpful to TDS, and often express their gratitude by giving us or the dogs some tokens of appreciation.

“Last but not the least, my therapy dog, Coco, loves all the TDS activities and is always keen to participate. She is very patient and gets lots of treats and cuddles!”

That’s a good girl 😊

Can we get a hug too?

All of this information and good vibes may have suddenly got you thinking.

You have a dog and now wonder if he can be a therapy dog. (And if you can be a volunteer too, because obviously you go together.) I did. 😊

“For our human volunteers, we require them to commit to a regular schedule of visitation, among other things. A minimum of four visits within six months is expected,” the TDS team says.

“Other expectations include:

#1 Emotional preparedness, so that they’ll be open to interacting with our patients.

#2 Being able to show empathy and lend a listening ear without being critical or judgmental.

#3 Being able to maximise positive experiences for the patients and recognise the opportunities for their dog to interact with the patients, and…

#4 Ability to control their dog and be punctual for visits.”

Does your furry best friend meet these criteria?

#1 A clean bill of health

“This is especially important as our dogs come into contact with some patients who might have certain health issues and be immuno-compromised,” they add.

#2 Skills

“The dogs should have basic obedience training, or be certified as having a suitable temperament at one of our evaluation sessions.”

#3 Temperament and aptitude

Like what was mentioned above, “Our therapy dogs should be of sound temperament, and have a more tolerant nature.”

How about it? Is this something you and your dog would be proud to be a part of? Just think of all the people you’ll get to cheer up (and all the dogs you’ll get to meet). 😊

Aside from their site, you can get updates on TDS through Facebook.

Photos of Coco, TDS dogs and volunteers by Pirjo Nielsen, TDS