Should My New Dog Become a Therapy Dog?

Our former Board President, Monica Payson, shares her experience of embracing the newest addition to her family, Aggie Pit Bull and discerning whether or not she should become a therapy dog.

Beautiful Aggie

Beautiful Aggie

When Aggie joined our family in September of 2016, I had been doing dog therapy and crisis response for almost 20 years. Asking if I was going to certify my newest dog was natural, but my answer at the time was “no.” Aggie was pulled from a kill shelter in southern CA only to languish in a boarding facility for six months. When my neighbor volunteered to foster, Aggie was shipped to Seattle on an overnight transport. She came off the truck dirty, desperately out of shape, and with a bad case of diarrhea. Her eyes were swollen and runny. She was in no shape to test and visit.

But Aggie also came off the truck sweet, gentle, loving, and calm. Her shelter notes said she was good with dogs and cats. She knew how to sit, walked nicely on leash, and came when called. She learned quickly, and I would have said at that point that she had the makings of a therapy dog. What I didn’t realize was what a long journey we would have unpacking Aggie’s trauma and uncovering the dog beneath.

Month 1: Aggie starts exhibiting high prey drive toward squirrels. She also starts to show aggression toward other dogs, even as she is becoming more comfortable and attached to our two bullmastiffs. I take her to a pet supply store and she is terrified. I realize I cannot predict which new environments will feel safe to her.

Month 2: The pitbull clown starts to break through the calm, and I realize that “calm” was really emotional shutdown and exhaustion from months in a shelter. With the joyful antics comes a level of arousal that sometimes shuts down Aggie’s ability to think. It also becomes clear that no one taught Aggie not to use her mouth when she is excited. While she is always gentle, we’re going to have to work hard on eliminating this behavior. Aggie’s aggression toward other dogs continues to increase and I switch her to front clip harness to save stress on her neck when she lunges. While she generally likes people and accepts attention from strangers, Aggie shows fear around a person who smells like cigarette smoke for the first time. I don’t know what other physical characteristics might cause her stress. Though we try medication, Aggie’s eyes continue to be swollen and runny and we worry that her vision is compromised.

Month 3: Aggie has surgery to fix her eye issues. Almost immediately after, she starts leaking urine. I believe she has spay related incontinence, but wait to see if it will improve on its own. The incontinence comes and goes, but it will take until month 8 before I really sort out causes and begin to be able to reliably manage the problem. Aggie’s dog aggression becomes intense enough that she flips herself lunging so hard. She becomes so aroused, so quickly that she cannot hear me or take food. I switch all of my training focus to reducing Aggie’s arousal and teaching her to think instead of just reacting.

Month 4: I try to teach Aggie to potty on command to relieve her incontinence. She won’t pee or poop on walks so I think she might be leaking because she just gets too full. Although I try to be gentle, this training is clearly deeply stressful for her and I stop.

Month 5: I start to realize that Aggie is sometimes afraid of men. I have a hard time identifying specific characteristics that trigger this. Aggie realizes she can pee and poop on walks! She seems to really enjoy this new discovery though any kind of pressure from me to relieve herself is still very stressful.

Month 8: We take our first vacation with the dogs, and, while Aggie enjoys the trip, she leaks almost constantly. We finally see the vet and put her on hormone replacement. This immediately resolves most of the leaking, and her occasional breakthrough leaks allow me to see that diet, but more importantly, stress contribute to her incontinence. We begin to believe Aggie was hit by a previous owner, but it’s hard to know exactly what circumstances (body movements, tone of voice) will cause her fear response.

Aggie has now been with us for a full year. Though we now see all of the pitbull joy and exuberance, she is still the sweet, gentle, devoted dog I first met. She loves having a family, and she’s learning to relax and trust that the world is an okay place. For all the progress we’ve made, I still have no plans to certify Aggie. There are still too many stressors that I can’t predict or control, and too many of her stress responses that are incompatible with therapy dog visiting. Most importantly, though, while Aggie likes people, it’s very clear to me that she wants to give all that love to her family. So, until she tells me otherwise, Aggie’s only job is to be a beloved family pet.