In the summer of 2016, my 2-year-old golden retriever, Ben, had completed several levels of obedience classes, but was still quite exuberant despite getting plenty of exercise. Ever since he was a puppy, Ben had a special connection with people. His mother was a therapy dog to an autistic child so I decided to explore whether he’d be a candidate for animal-assisted therapy. Ben could continue learning and direct all that energy in a positive way.

We met with an instructor from Marin Humane’s Your Dog to Share five-week class to assess Ben’s readiness to enter its animal-assisted therapy program. Goldens are known for remaining puppy-like for quite some time and Ben was no exception. The instructor put Ben through a few paces, suggested a couple of training cues for us to work on, and told me we were welcome to enroll. So we enrolled in the class with a view toward starting the process and gaining experience.

The weekly class proved fast-paced and interesting. Each week, new therapy skills were introduced along with homework and reading material for the handlers. While I loved this class, Ben became distracted and was not focusing on me, but with the help of some extra one-one-one training, we got back on track with the other teams. Ben learned to gently greet people in wheelchairs and hospital beds or using walkers and canes. He grew to like riding in elevators, a must for working in hospitals and retirement communities. He learned to remain calm in settings where there’s a lot going on, including loud noises and various types of heavy equipment.

In order to graduate from the class, enrollees have to pass a test that incorporates important skills for therapy dogs. I was hopeful Ben could demonstrate that he could indeed focus on me and complete the test. He rose to the occasion and passed! A nice graduation took place later that week. It was a wonderful day that I will never forget.

Marin Humane then arranged for the new animal-assisted therapy teams (a team is a guardian and his or her dog) to shadow a veteran therapy dog team. I found this step tremendously helpful. Marin Humane brings therapy dog teams to several organizations so there’s a wide array of volunteer opportunities. Ben and I tried several assignments: we visited seniors in assisted living and the skilled nursing unit (including hospice) at a local retirement community; we participated in Marin Humane’s summer camp program; we visited Compassion Corner, a program at the shelter for people with physical and cognitive limitations; and we provided stress relief for students during final exams. Ben loved the work and so did I.

Ben still acts puppy-like and overly exuberant at times. But when working, he’s learned to focus on the job at hand and enjoys using his “people” skills for the good of his community. I love seeing how his warm and friendly nature brings great joy to others. He has worked hard and I am one proud pet parent.

If you’re interested in learning more, contact Marin Humane’s community engagement department at 415-506-6238.

By Bridget Helt, a Community Engagement Animal Assisted Therapy volunteer with Marin Humane