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  • Writer's pictureReta

Therapy Work with Whippets?

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

If you are looking for a way to give back to your community and spend time with your dog, you may want to consider a therapy dog program. The following piece is brought to you by Reta Byvelds, who is a St John Ambulance Therapy Whippet Handler!
Reta's Team (Seamus, Pieter and Devo) L->R, Photo credit: Sherry Lemke

About the Author: Reta has been a therapy dog handler since 2014 and has handled three whippets in various settings in and around Stratford. Presently her primary gigs are weekly visits to the In-patient Mental Health Unit at the Stratford Hospital, a Retirement facility and a Long-term care facility. She also visits a local hospital when she is visiting family in Eastern Ontario. Reta has worked with the Paws for Reading program in the local library, visited local schools and the Childrens’ Aid Society, a university and several workplaces. Her first therapy whippet was named Devo, who completed 578 visits. She is currently working with 10-year-old Seamus who has also completed more than 500 visits and 3-year-old Pieter who is a newbie with less than 60 visits.

Generally, therapy dogs need to be calm, well-behaved and comfortable in different environments. Whippets can make amazing therapy dogs because they have a gentle and affectionate nature, are generally good with people, including strangers and can form strong bonds with their people. There is always a but … their suitability depends on various factors such as individual temperament, training and the specific requirements of the therapy work. Here are some considerations to keep in mind when determining whether your whippet might make a good therapy dog:

Temperament: Whippets are generally known for their calm and gentle temperament, but individual dogs may vary. It's important to choose a whippet with a temperament suitable for therapy work. You should look for the confident and curious puppy. Confidence trumps affection – the residents/patients don’t know that the dog is approaching them because they are curious – they will believe it's because the dog likes them!
Socialization: Proper socialization from an early age is crucial. Pick a breeder that exposes their puppies to new sights, sounds and smells early on. After you bring your puppy home, exposing them to various environments, people and situations helps them become well-adjusted and comfortable in different settings. You want to instill confidence in any setting. One of the most important things to expose them to is loud sounds such as a construction site – trust me, the construction workers will thank you!
Training: Basic obedience training is essential to pass the certification tests. They should respond reliably to commands, walk with a loose leash and be well-behaved in various situations including meeting other dogs.
Sensitivity: Whippets can be sensitive dogs, so it's important to consider how they react to different stimuli. Therapy dogs should be able to remain calm and composed in potentially stressful situations. The level of sensitivity of your whippet may be something to consider when you are looking at where you want to work with your dog.
Energy Level: Whippets are an active breed and while they may not have the same level of energy as some other breeds, they still need regular exercise. Ensuring that a whippet gets enough physical activity can contribute to their overall well-being and may help them remain calm in therapy settings. I have worked with three whippets all with different energy levels. You can work around high energy levels with your handling, exercise before visits, selecting the right location and picking the right time.

If you're considering a whippet as a therapy dog, talk to your breeder so this can be considered in puppy selection. Enroll your whippet puppy in obedience classes. Expose them to new things. Socialization isn’t just about meeting other dogs and people. Its about noises, smells and sights.

You should certify through a reputable therapy dog organization. The therapy dog organization will help ensure that your dog is well-prepared for therapy work. Certification involves testing that the dog has the appropriate temperament and behavior to work in therapeutic settings. Generally, tests are done in two parts starting with an initial test that certifies the team to work with adults. Should you wish to work with children, there is an additional test that is done after the team has completed a reasonably substantive number of adult visits. This is a tough test; imagine your dog in a room with several children doing all the things their parents have told them not to do to a dog.

Before pursuing certification with any organization, do some research. If you want to work at a specific location, check with them as to which organizations they work with. Ensure that the therapy dog organization carries liability insurance to protect you should something unfortunate happen while you are working. I have always worked out of the St. John Ambulance branch in Stratford-Perth. St. John Ambulance's Therapy Dog Program is one of the more well-established and widely recognized therapy dog programs and as a national organization it has branches across the country.

Once you and your dog have been certified as a therapy dog team, you will have to provide health certification for your whippet. Most certification programs require a veterinarian's statement confirming the dog's health including being up to date on vaccinations (titers are generally not accepted). You will have to get a vulnerable persons police check. When you are ready to visit, you will be provided with a mentor; an experienced therapy dog handler will join you on your initial visits offering advice and encouragement.

The CKC recognizes therapy dogs from CKC approved Therapy Dog organizations with titles. Titles include Therapy Dog Novice (THDN) with the completion of 10 visits, Therapy Dog (THD)-with the completion of 50 Visits, Therapy Dog Advanced (THDA)-with the completion of 100 Visits, Therapy Dog Excellent (THDX)-with the completion of 200 Visits and the Therapy Dog Distinguished (THDD)-with the completion of 500 Visits.

Most therapy dog handlers are very proud of their work and their dogs. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask them questions. They may be able to have you join them on some types of visits so you can see what is involved firsthand.

Remember that each dog is an individual and success as a therapy dog depends on factors such as personality, genetics and early socialization. If you aren’t successful in certifying your dog, it doesn’t mean that he or she isn’t the best dog for you.

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