Calling caring dogs and their humans – Marshall Co. RSVP is expanding its therapy dog program

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — Using dogs to make a difference – that’s the goal of a program in Marshall County and if you have a dog, an outgoing personality, and a drive to serve, you can help.

Arlene Rakestraw sat on the floor with her two dogs inside Marshall County RSVP in Guntersville. One of them, a fluffy white dog named Cheyenne, was cuddled up against her human’s chest with her eyes shut. “Very passive,” Rakestraw said with a smile. That’s Cheyenne’s personality. Beside her, Cheyenne’s counterpart, a black dog named Kai, chews on his ball like it’s the last thing in the world.

Those two dogs are a hit with the kids they travel across Marshall County to see. They’re part of Marshall County RSVP’s therapy dog program.  “Kai usually lays down on the floor with the kids, and they read to him and he watches them read. Cheyenne’s not much of a reader. She’s more of a hugger,” Rakestraw said.

Jean Ann Moon is the director of Marshall County Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, and she wants to expand the therapy dog program because there’s such a need. “If you think you have a dog that’s at least a year old, and you’ve had it for at least three months, and it has the personality you think to interact with others, then you might want to think about coming down,” Moon explained.

The program is open to healthy dogs of any breed and their adults. They’ll travel across Marshall County visiting different places, from libraries to schools. “There are a lot of dog and volunteer teams that like to go to assisted livings, that like to go to nursing homes,” Moon said.

Dog owners and their pets are invited to come for the initial Therapy Dogs evaluation session on September 18 at RSVP. That’s located at 1805 Gunter Avenue in Guntersville.

To become a part of the team, dog/handler teams must complete the following steps under the supervision of the Therapy Dog trainer:

  • Handlers must attend a training course to learn about special needs, interaction, health and safety, and patient confidentiality.
  • Dogs must pass a health screening by the animal’s regular veterinarian, have immunizations as required by state law and be free from parasites, disease, infections and illnesses.
  • Dog/handler teams must pass a skills test which shows whether the animal can be controlled by the handler and follow basic commands.
  • Dog/handler teams will be observed on three visits to a facility to determine if dog and handler have the ability, capacity, desire, and potential for participating in dog therapy.

RSVP partnered with Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a national organization that provides guidelines and insurance for pet therapy volunteers.  Rosalind Hall, professional dog trainer, tester/observer for Therapy Dogs, and RSVP volunteer, will conduct the evaluation/observation process.  The initial screening and evaluation is free.

Anyone who is interested in volunteering or who would like more information, call RSVP at 256-571-7734.  Volunteers need to register for the evaluation prior to the 18th. Be sure and bring along your dog’s proof of rabies shot, proof of a negative fecal exam done within the past year, and health certificate from your veterinarian. Dog must be on a 4 foot or shorter leash for evaluation.

The volunteer teams do more than just visit. They make an impact. “It has a longer lasting effect than just during the time the dog’s there,” Moon said.

“They all bring something,” Rakestraw added.