Even though Don was released from Southeastern Guide Dogs' guide and
service dog program when he was ten months old, he still honors his
namesake by giving comfort and joy to everyone who shares his life, both as
our family pet and as a certified therapy dog. He's only just begun!
Don LOVES people and he doesn't discriminate -- any age, sex,
race, or system of beliefs. He is intuitive enough to know who wants to
say hi and who isn't in the mood. He gives kisses freely to anyone who
wants/needs them and brings smiles to so many people on our walks and
when we're working as a pet therapy team.
Don's love of people was obvious to us as soon as we met him at three
months of age. He was five months old in this photo during one of our
puppy training outings to the Kennesaw University library. He was giving
some kisses to Teri, our current SEGD volunteer area coordinator:
As a guide puppy in training Don was allowed to greet people when in his guide coat, up until about the time he was released. But I was
weaning him off people greetings in anticipation of the time when he was
no longer supposed to do that. (Out of coat, greetings were still
Guide and service dogs, no matter how friendly their temperament,
must learn to focus solely on their handler while they are working.
Before Don's release I wondered if he'd ever master that skill in
Once career-changed, Don quite naturally slid into the role of social
butterfly. I knew as soon as he was released what his new career would be --
certified therapy dog! He's a natural.
This entry is an update of Don's activities since I last wrote about
April 30. I'll include a variety of photos from
May to December as I describe the process of certifying him for pet therapy,
and add even more photos on a second page.
BUT HE'S SO YOUNG!
Back in the 1980s and '90s I had two other Labs that were certified
with a different pet therapy organization. I took them to a nursing home in another
part of metro Atlanta where I lived at the time. They were typical
lovable Labs but nowhere near as calm, well-trained, intuitive, and smart as Don,
who is still relatively young for this type of work.
There is more than one national therapy dog certification
organization. This time I chose Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD) because
several of my local
and internet friends belong to that organization and it is a
well-respected non-profit group.
Any well-mannered, healthy breed of dog with the right temperament
can become a certified therapy dog. I've seen photos of therapy dogs
ranging in size from tiny Yorkies to huge St. Bernards. Because Labrador
and Golden retrievers are so popular with Americans and also so
people-oriented, they are probably the most common breeds for pet
The minimum age for testing, observing, and certifying is one year
old. After Don turned one in early June I began the paperwork process,
passed the background check ATD uses, and chose a local tester/observer
(T/O) named Cindy.
Cindy was cordial but hesitant to test Don when he was only twelve
months old. She's been testing for ATD for twenty years and knows that
Labs tend to mature late. She'd never previously tested a Lab as young as Don.
So I gave her my best advocacy spiel and explained Don's training as
a guide puppy, his perfect manners, and his reserved temperament even
when he was a very young puppy.
This is Don's default setting,
even when quite young! (5-3-20, age 11 mos.)
Cindy finally agreed to meet us on July 21 at a feed store near
her home for his test and first observation.
I knew Don would do well with the obedience testing but was afraid he might be totally distracted by the
bags of dog food. Although he's familiar with home and garden stores, taking him into pet shops like Petsmart was
still a challenge last summer.
Cindy assured me she was more interested with how Don followed
commands and interacted with people than whether he was distracted by
dog food scents. OK then, we can do this!
I use treats in pet stores to
help Don focus on me and not all the dog food.
Here I'm wearing a mask
that matches his bow tie. (7-12-20, age 13 mos.)
Prior to the COVID pandemic ATD required that two of the three observations be held in medical setting like a hospital or nursing home.
During the pandemic, however, they've had to relax that standard since visitors
haven't been able to go into most of the traditional settings
for pet therapy.
In 2020 testers have been able to use home and garden stores or
outdoors shopping areas, as long as potential therapy dogs'
interactions with people can be observed.
Posing with pumpkins at Pike
Nursery (age 16 mos.)
At thirteen months of age Don passed his testing in the feed store parking lot
that day quite easily. It was basically a Canine Good Citizen test,
although ATD doesn't require that certificate.
Then we went inside the store for his first observation with
people. It was impossible to completely avoid the aisles of pet food but
Don wasn't as distracted by the tantalizing scents as I thought he'd be.
More importantly, Cindy was impressed with his obedience and perfect
manners with her, the store employees, and a few customers.
I was so proud of Don! We were halfway to getting him certified. He
just needed two more observations and I knew he'd do well at those
because they would be at large home stores, the type of setting he's
very familiar with.
The second observation with Cindy was at
Lowe's the next week:
(L-R) Sue, Don, Cindy at Lowe's
in July for second observation (age 13 mos.)
Then Cindy went out of town for several weeks and the final
observation at Home Depot wasn't until the end of August. Don passed all
of his observations easily. Cindy was impressed because he was still
only 14 months old.
About a week later we received Don's ATD certificate,
membership card, therapy dog tag, and a quarterly magazine in the mail.
We were officially a therapy dog team!
Linda, one of my Southeastern Guide Dog friends who lives in Florida, has two
Labs she raised for the school. When they were released, she adopted
them and has both certified for pet therapy. She has been a great
mentor to me, one of several women with therapy dogs who have been very helpful.
She designed this handsome business card for Don
and I had a bunch of them printed up by Shutterfly to pass out to
individuals and facilities:
However, we're still sort of all dressed up with nowhere
(traditional) to go . . .
Because of the COVID pandemic, at the end of 2020 we still
can't visit inside hospitals, nursing and assisted living homes,
hospice facilities, schools, libraries, or most of the other places where
pet therapy is usually done.
This year pet therapy teams around the country have employed some new
and creative ways of reaching clients through Zoom calls, FaceTime,
PetsTogether online visits, "window" visits outside nursing homes,
staff visits outside hospitals, sending cards from the therapy dogs to
former clients like hospice patients, and other safe methods.
I considered making greeting cards for sick and elderly people who
couldn't have visitors or go out to run errands. I took some photos of Don dressed in various
costumes and clothes but never did actually design cards to send anyone.
The main reason was not having a client base already.
Lumberjack Don, posing with a
hatchet instead of an ax; Don does NOT like hats! (age 16 mos.)
He tolerated the lion's mane for
a relatively long photo session (age 15 mos.)
Above and below: Don seems
to like wearing shirts and bandanas;
these were two of the Walkathon
fundraising awards we earned. (age 13 mos.)
I had high hopes when I met a young woman in our neighborhood while
out walking Don one day in the fall. She loved meeting him. When I said he's a
lovable therapy dog without the normal places to visit people during the pandemic,
she encouraged me to take him to a nearby independent living complex to see
her grandmother and other residents.
I contacted them and took Don's business card and vet information
to the manager. They'd never utilized pet therapy with their 65+ age group of
residents but agreed to set up a date and time for an outside visit
under the gazebo. (I don't have any photos from that visit.)
Must touch Mom whenever possible
. . . photo shoot in our
back yard Oct. 4 on Don's
Fortunately, it was on a warm late autumn day so it was pleasant
outside. Unfortunately, so few staff and residents came down to see us
that I was disappointed. Another friend was there with her therapy Lab,
too. Both dogs acted appropriately but since the reception was
lackluster, and they don't want dogs inside the building even after the
pandemic is over, I don't know if we'll go back again.
Don and I have had a much more enthusiastic reception at our local
Home Depot store and I can take him inside there. We go at least weekly to
give puppy love to interested associates and customers who are complying
with CDC guidelines to wear masks.
Above and below: Home Depot
in the fall (age 15 months)
Don loves going to Home Depot, getting all wiggly when I tell him
where we're going. He's eager to get out of the car as soon as we reach
the parking lot. This store has been one of our main go-to destinations for people greetings
since Don was fully vaccinated at 16 weeks old.
We make a grand circuit of the garden center and store, hitting the
areas where employees usually want to see Don. Others who aren't tied to
one spot sometimes hunt for us when word gets out that Don is in the
store. Nobody knows my name but they know Don's!
A couple of the young female associates have even gotten down on the
floor to cuddle with him!
Two of Don's favorite associates
at Home Depot (8-26-20, age 14 mos.)
If I go into a store where I've often taken Don but don't have him
with me, it's common for employees to ask where he is. I love that he
has such a positive effect on people!
Businesses in our area are relatively pet-friendly. Even though
I can't take him into some stores where he had access as
a therapy dog in training, like Target and Sam's Club, he's still
allowed in other places where we sometimes go -- Home Goods, TJ
Maxx, BedBath&Beyond, Ross, At Home, nurseries and plant stores, pet
and feed stores, etc.
But our local Home Depot remains our favorite place to go visit people and
I can't resist photographing this handsome boy with the ever-changing
seasonal merchandise and displays:
This winter I have done all the steps necessary to get Don and me
approved as a large hospice organization's first pet therapy team --
application, background check, online coursework. Orientation will occur
in January, 2021.
This group has a small in-patient facility at its main headquarters
but it serves patients in nursing homes, assisted living and veterans' facilities, and
in their own homes across the entire metro Atlanta area. I'm especially
interested in visiting veterans. This is an easier way to get my foot in
the door than trying to qualify through the cumbersome Veteran's
Hopefully by spring, 2021, when most patients, caregivers, medical
workers, and hospice volunteers have been vaccinated again COVID-19, Don
and I will be able to start visiting hospice patients, caregivers, and staff.
Everyone can use some puppy love in these trying times!
Continued on the next page -- lots more puppy pictures of Don
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
Casey-Girl, Holly-Holly, & Dapper Don
© 2020 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil