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Shasta: A therapy dog story

Therapy dogs play an important part in patient healing. This is the story of Shasta, Adventist Health’s first therapy dog and info on what dogs make good therapy pets.

Shasta: A therapy dog story

Just as not every human has the “calling” to work in the medical industry, neither does every dog have a calling to be a therapy dog. There is no specific breed that is always deemed ideal for therapy dog duties, it is more about the specific dog’s temperament.

Shasta’s Story

Shasta, a therapy dog, (who recently crossed over the Rainbow Bridge) was owned by author Denise Yoder-Gruzensky. She wrote, Not Like The Others: Harley’s Story, a book about living with a dog with special needs. After rescuing Shasta, a Yorkie/Schnauzer mix, she observed, “From the beginning, I thought of Shasta as a therapy dog. He was calm, rarely barked and loved people.”

Denise is a nurse practitioner and very passionate about pets. When a volunteer director at Adventist Health heard about Denise’s passion, she reached out. She was designing a pet therapy program for the health network and there were a few missing pieces.

“The research is overwhelming about the benefits of pet therapy,” Denise said. “It’s been shown that your blood pressure lowers when you pet an animal and that we live longer if we have animals. You can’t deny the benefits of having pets in hospitals.”

Together they wrote a policy for the hospital system. It required all dog handlers to complete a special handler course, as well as an extended beginner training class.

“The addition of the training is where hospital equipment like crutches and wheelchairs are brought in to assure the dog isn’t reactive to the items they will encounter in a hospital setting,” Denise explained.

Shasta helped launch the program as the hospital’s first therapy dog.

Denise Yoder-Gruzensky with therapy dog, Shasta


Does your dog have what it takes to be a therapy dog?

Look for a training class and a trainer who can help determine whether your dog or puppy might have what it takes to be a therapy dog. In the meantime, here are some common traits that therapy dogs share:

They are comfortable being touched. Therapy dogs bring comfort to strangers and because of that, they need to be comfortable being petted and patted by people in nursing homes, hospitals, or in school settings.

They exhibit good canine manners. He will walk on a leash, sit, stay and come when called. A therapy dog will understand commands like drop it or leave it. This is essential as he may be placed in a medical setting and could be exposed to prescription meds or food that shouldn’t be ingested by canines.

They are calm. In a hospital or school setting, loud noises could be startling to a dog. A therapy dog will be taught to not react to these sudden, loud noises.

Good health is a must. The therapy dog must be current on his vaccinations, and must be in good health before visiting and interacting with others.

They exhibit a happy disposition.They are content dressed up for holidays or being passed around amongst patients or students. And they generally seem to enjoy their job.

You don’t need to have a puppy to consider being a therapy dog handler; many rescue dogs find their purpose as therapy dogs. What you need is a dog who has the temperament to provide comfort and joy to those in need. It also helps to have the volunteer spirit, as you may find your therapy dog is in high demand!

Robbi Hess, award-winning author, is multi-petual: She shares her home with two Devon Rex kittens, three adult rescue cats, a mini poodle, a Goldendoodle, three lizards and two ferrets. When not caring for her pets, she is an editor, speaker, time management and productivity guru, content creator, social media manager and blogger. She writes at All Words MatterMy Divas Dish, and is the story editor and chief cat herder at Positively Woof.

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