We all know fostering a rescue dog plucked from the shelter saves a life, but did you know you can also foster therapy or service dogs? It turns out, foster families are very much in demand for non-profit groups raising working dogs.
We’re highlighting the work of some of these amazing groups dedicated to rearing service dogs and showing you how to get involved and make a difference—not just in the life of a dog but the person that dog will serve.
What is a Therapy Dog?
According to the American Kennel Club, therapy dogs go with their owners to volunteer in schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. These dogs can either be family pets or dogs that were trained as service dogs, but did not meet all the certification criteria; estimates vary, but only 40 to 60% of dogs trained as service animals end up being certified as such. The remainder often become therapy dogs, or work in another setting more suited to their skills.
- Friendly and accepting of strangers
- Gets along with dogs of all sizes and breeds
- Calm, able to sit on command, and stay for a long period of time
- Ability to walk calmly through a crowd
- Ability to stay focused even with distractions
- Enjoys being groomed or pet by strangers
- Confident and carefree
- Relaxed even with loud, disruptive noises
- Has good manners even when you’re not in the room
- Comfortable in a new or changing environment
There are additional requirements and testing procedures to complete the certification process.
Service dogs differ from therapy dogs in that they are specially trained to perform specific tasks to help a person who has a disability. They are often paired with the visually impaired, or a veteran suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury.
Fostering Programs for Therapy Dogs
Therapy and service dogs offer tremendous benefits to their humans, but it’s a long road to get a dog trained and qualified to serve. Foster families are usually involved in training the puppies, from as young as six week of age up to anywhere between 12 and 18 months old.
Foster families working with Wilderwood Service Dogs receive training through puppy classes and learn to exercise great patience with their pup trainees.
“Fostering a service-dog puppy is not only about the joy of having a puppy, but is part of a much larger experience,” Wilderwood Director Tiffany Denyer says. “Fosters work through the stages of puppy madness and into the exciting adventures of socialization. The puppy cadets in their cute vests are show-stoppers and there are no longer ‘quick trips’ anywhere, thanks to the adoring public.”
You might think it would be hard to relinquish a puppy after all the time and effort put into raising them, but experienced foster parent Jocelyn Hargrove says it’s part of the job.
“When you receive this puppy, you have to remember you’re raising it for someone else,” Hargrove says. “This is charitable work to help someone else. I get the pleasure of raising the dog and knowing he’s going to have a wonderful life helping another human being.”
Hargrove is currently raising her 41st puppy in 27 years for Southeastern Guide Dogs (SGD), the only accredited guide-dog training program in Florida. She’s an area coordinator and helps others get involved in fostering and training the dogs—puppy raising, as Southeastern calls it.
“[Potential puppy raisers] need to realize this is a 24-7 commitment,” Hargrove says. “It’s like taking care of a baby—you have to always be thinking, where’s my dog, what’s he doing, what’s the next step? Some people say, ‘I didn’t realize it’s this much work.'”
From “Puppy Academy” to “Boarding School” to “University Level,” SGD has a structured regimen to make sure their dogs are exceptionally well-trained. So what do “fostering” duties look like? Ruth Lando, Media Relations Manager for SGD, says typical duties of puppy raisers include:
- Teach basic obedience
- Socialize the dog properly
- Take the dog everywhere you go to get him acclimated all sorts of environments
- Teach additional commands specific to service animals, such as curb, door, and light switch
- Return the dog as soon as the puppy raising period is over
The more specialized skills are taught by certified trainers. For instance, these certified trainers help teach something called “intelligent disobedience,” or the ability to mindfully ignore a handler’s command when it puts their life in danger.
“[A visually-impaired] handler may give the command to cross the street and be unaware there’s an electric car coming because they can’t hear it,” Lando explains. “The dogs are very intelligent and highly trained to protect their handler.”
SGD raises three breeds of dogs they’ve found have the ideal character traits to be service and therapy dogs: Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and a cross of the two breeds, dubbed “Goldadors.” The non-profit receives no government assistance and offers service dogs free of charge. Lando says they are always in need of more puppy raisers, especially in the spring and summer as litters are born.
“[Our puppy raisers] are mad for dogs and lovers of dogs, but they know they’re doing something really special that’s going to transform someone’s life,” Lando adds. “They are a special breed of people.”
Find a therapy dog organization or a service dog training program in your area, and reach out to be a volunteer. Whether you foster for programs that need you for the weekend or raise a puppy for a full year, it’s a rewarding and life-changing experience.
“There is this unsurpassed explosion of pride and joy when you watch your young cadet meet their disabled partner, changing both your lives forever,” Denyer says.