“Teaming With Your Therapy Dog,” by Ann R. Howie. Purdue University Press. $16.95.
The talented Olympia author, who doubles as a dog trainer/mental-health counselor, offers a much-needed coaching manual here designed to give the reader “a solid platform from which to develop your own handling style that supports your dog – a code of conduct for therapy dog handling.”
While most would think the focus would be narrowly channeled toward the dog, Howie flips the leash – to the handler. “We demonstrate our relationship with our dogs every moment that we are with them. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words,” she emphasizes.
The foundation is a four-level STEP platform designed for simplicity: (S) Speak conversationally; stay in (T) Touch with your dog; keep your (E) Eyes on your dog; maintain close (P) Proximity to your four-legged partner.
Consider the STEPs principles, i.e. a guide for the handler’s behavior, says the author, “rather than a law that dictates specific behavior.”
Directing the training emphasis on the handler instead of the dog represents a dramatic reversal in the field from the focus three to four decades ago. Howie argues that by using these teamwork principles your dog will not only perform better in nursing homes, hospitals, schools and prisons but it will strengthen the bond at home, too.
Each chapter begins with a scene setter and interaction between handler and dog, establishing the emphasis for that working scenario. “To be effective in animal-assisted interactions (AAI), our handling skills must fit with the environment and engage the clients we are visiting,” she writes. Because of the behavioral unpredictability of residents, patients, prisoners and students, the therapy-dog handler’s chief responsibility becomes keeping his/her dog safe, Howie emphasizes, hence the STEPs of teamwork.
But to better understand dog behavior and for improved communication observers must be able to acknowledge their own biases, she writes. For example, if someone was bitten by a dog at an early age, that individual may have a greater fear of dogs than someone who has never been bitten.” A centered handler, she says, sees the big picture in all environments and skillfully anticipates potential problems.
Philosophical and engaging, the text is complemented nicely with photos and illustrations, giving the reader a solid grasp of her pointers.
Toward the end of this playbook, Howie nicely flips the switch from the STEPs breakdown to a chapter entitled “The Therapy Dog’s Bill of Rights” with a pinpoint mix of expectations Fido should have of its handler.
Blending fresh insight and sensitive analysis, this excellent resource is long overdue in the highly demanding and complex therapy-dog field. It serves as a sobering reminder that good intentions aren’t always enough, yet it is empowering with a lively narrative, detailed descriptions and engaging scenarios.