By Samantha Johnson
Gas City Dog Club in Medicine Hat does more than puppy and obedience training, the also offer training and evaluation for therapy dogs and are qualified to train and evaluate other animals for therapy purposes as well. There is also a therapy dog group in Bow Island who are just starting to meet again.
President Alta Magee, who lives on an acreage near Whitla, has been a member of the Gas City Dog Club since the late 1980’s. “We had lots of people asking about how they could qualify their animal as a therapy animal. They had tried various things and weren’t getting much of a response from other organizations, so they came to us and we decided to have a look and see what is out there,” said Magee.
The process started by evaluating almost 15 different organizations to see what sort of skills they were looking for in therapy animals, what the criteria were, how assessments took place, and whether it was an ongoing assessment or a onetime thing. In the end, the club decided not to create their own program but became affiliated with Pet Partners (www.petpartners.org) out of the US.
“We found that Pet Partners was the one that agreed with our philosophy regarding how animals are treated and the value of animals,” explained Magee. “We really liked the fact that all their skills testing was based on scientific research, that it had an ongoing education for the handlers and that it required reassessment (every two years) of both handlers and instructors.”
Pet Partners doesn’t limit themselves to dogs, they have registration and testing criteria for nine different species, including birds, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rats, horses, and llamas. Each species has their own testing skills. The first part of the evaluation is skills based, including obedience skills, walking on a loose leash, sitting, going down, and walking through a crowd. The second part is based on aptitude, how well suited is the animal for visiting.
The evaluation is for the team of handler and animal. Things that are being looked at for the handler are: How well does the handler manage their visiting? Are they there supporting the animal? Are they watching the animal all the time? Are they proactive or do they ignore their animal? If the handler doesn’t pass, the team doesn’t pass. If the animal doesn’t pass, the team doesn’t pass.
“We liked that it was a team effort, and we thought the animals should be treated very well. Pet Partners has two acronyms they use all the time. One is PETS and that is what the handler needs to provide for the animal, which is presence, eye contact, touch, and speech. The four different ways to reassure your animal. You are your animals best advocate (YAYABA). What they expect is that when you are out visiting, you are the director of your animal’s fate, you will tell people how to approach them, make it safe for both the animal and the person you are visiting,” said Magee.
After deciding Pet Partners was the way to go, things fell into place. The club was able to sponsor a team evaluator workshop. Pet Partners sent up an instructor and an evaluator from California to run a weekend workshop. “To qualify a team, the handler has to have education. Pet Partners doesn’t train animals. That is where Gas City Dog Club comes in, we are two non-profit organizations that complement one another. The club has taken on the responsibility of helping handlers get their animals ready to be therapy animals and Pet Partners supplies the team evaluators and instructors for humans,” stated Magee.
Within Gas City Dog Club, there are two team evaluators for Pet Partners and two instructors. To take the Pet Partners course online cost $90 US so the club figured they should run the courses onsite and provide them at no cost. “We work together, when we feel the handler and dog team are ready for evaluation then we set up a team evaluation through Pet Partners,” said Magee.
Once the evaluation is successful, the team receives a letter from Pet Partners once all the paperwork is completed. Once the letter is received, the team can start visiting. Within four to six weeks, they will get a nametag that shows they are registered with Pet Partners, and they’ve qualified with all the criteria to be a therapy team.
The handler usually has in mind what they want to do with their therapy dog once they are qualified and it is up to them to make it happen. Registering with volunteer services at the organization of choice and getting background checks is usually required.
The club keeps a binder of all the teams that have qualified since they started. Magee encourages them to write and to let the club know how they are doing. There are therapy teams visiting libraries, vaccination clinics, women shelters, nursing homes, hospitals, doctor’s offices, remand centres, with homeless people, at colleges and in theatre settings.
There are therapy dogs currently in session and each team requires different lengths of time until they feel ready for evaluation. The club doesn’t train to the evaluation but rather exposes the team to what might be encountered in a visiting session, such as walkers, wheelchairs and different noises.
“Walking on a loose leash is key, points get taken off if the leash is tight. Sit, stay, reaction to a neutral dog. We have them visiting and bring another dog in and see what the reaction is,” said Magee. “We run the classes until people feel confident they are ready to be evaluated as a team, feel ready to monitor their dogs reactions and intervene as required and feel the animal is ready and has the skills.”
The groups tend to be small, with a group of three on Saturdays and four on Sundays at the Club. Magee also has a group of four in Bow Island who are just starting to meet again after being interrupted by the pandemic. Once all teams have passed their evaluations, another class is started.
Gas City Dog Club provides therapy and service dog classes free of charge. All other classes have a charge associated with them. “If someone comes in with a rescue animal, their first class is half price to try and support those rescue agencies. We run classes for six-week sessions at $140 for the six weeks. If they have more than one dog in the class, the price goes down. Their second and subsequent classes are less as well. if someone starts in puppy obedience and then want to do Level 1 Obedience and then Rally Obedience the price goes down each time,” explained Magee.
The club also runs three-hour long workshops the first Saturday of each month for $30. A new workshop is being offered called Freestyle obedience, which teaches your dog various tricks, such as weaving through legs, and then the entire routine is put to music. No more than eight dogs are registered for each workshop to give each handler/dog team the full benefit of the allocated time. If there are more than eight people wanting to register, the club tries to put on a second workshop that month.
The club has a very small, cohesive group of members who work well together. “We have some instructors that are club members, and they volunteer their time, and some the club pays to instruct and that is what the fees are for, to pay instructors and pay their rent. We are registered as a non-profit so anything we earn goes back into the club, the teaching of classes, equipment, supplies and that sort of thing,” said Magee. More information can be found at http://www.gascitydogclub.ca.