Become a Therapy Dog Team in Thurston County

Therapy dog training is specialized but rewarding


Did you see a sweet dog walking around a hospital with its owner the last time you were there? Maybe you saw a patient’s face light up as the dog approached them and sat to be petted. Or maybe you experienced it yourself, getting a visit in your lonely hospital room from a well-mannered dog. Research has shown that therapy dogs help reduce fear and loneliness while helping people relax and even lessening pain! You can make your dog a therapy dog in Thurston County, and help those in need at our local hospitals.

Olympia Pet Emergency logo 2018

Paula Gayson, Teacher and Therapy Dog Handler

Paula Gayson owns a bernadoodle, which is a saint bernard, poodle mix, named Addie who will be 3 in April 2024. A lifelong dog lover, she has always owned one or two she says, but she didn’t get into therapy work until she moved her mother into an assisted living facility in 2000. “I saw how many people were there alone with no family around to visit,” she says. “I know firsthand the impact a dog can have on someone, so that’s when I first got the idea to pursue it.”

Paula has been working in public education for over three decades and says her dream job would allow her to bring her dog to school every day. “There is so much research supporting the use of therapy dogs with students with autism, students who struggle with reading, and/or behavior,” she adds. “Research shows attendance improves. We know that the simple act of petting a dog decreases cortisol (stress hormone) levels and increases the ‘feel good’ hormones including serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin, which all lead to decreased stress and anxiety.”

a white bernadoodle is laying on concrete wearing a working dog harness that says 'therapy dog'
Addie, handled by her owner Paula Gayson, visits assisted living facilities, hospitals, classrooms and anywhere else some therapy is needed. Photo credit: Cassie Pitkin

Addie has now been a therapy dog for about a year and a half. Most programs require dogs to be at least a year old, Paula explains. They regularly visit Artesian Place Assisted Living in Olympia. Other places they have visited include Lakes Elementary and Chambers Prairie in Lacey for curriculum nights; and a second-grade class at Griffin School in Olympia.

She says other therapy dog teams in the area visit colleges through a program called College Dogs and have even gone up to the Seattle Children’s Hospital for staff appreciation week. Teams visit hospitals and assisted living and memory care facilities throughout Thurston and Pierce counties.

“Last summer a group of us volunteered at Camp Erin, which is a bereavement program for youth,” shares Paula. “We plan to go again this year. Addie and a few other dogs made a couple of visits to a high school in Pierce County last year following the death of a student.”

From left: Romio (owned by Julie Peace), Addie (owned by Paula Gayson), Willow (owned by Julie Peace) and Chance (owned by Dawn Taft) pose for a photo in a canoe at Camp Erin, where they provided therapy for youth experience the death of someone close to them. Photo credit: Paula Gayson

Therapy Dog Training in Thurston County

Not every dog can be a therapy dog. Dogs must be calm, gentle, well-behaved and love people, shares Paula. The certification process includes vetting a dog’s temperament as well as making sure they know basic obedience including sit, stay, come, wait and walking nicely on a leash. “The dog must listen to the handler,” Paula shares. “The relationship between the dog and the handler is a critical piece. Not all dogs will make it through the certification process. I also have a goldendoodle (Tate) who flunked out. He’s an amazing dog in so many ways, but is just too shy and won’t always go to strangers, so he’s my personal therapy dog. I do like that the process is rigorous and that the organizations don’t just certify any dog.”

From left: Sachi (owned by Ann Ruth) and Button (owned by Jeff Orlando) pose for a photo by some fall decoration outside an assisted living facility. Therapy dogs are great visitor for senior citizens. Photo credit: Jeff Orlando

Addie is certified with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs as well as Pet Partners. Both of these are nationally recognized organizations that are great for anyone who wants to get their dog certified as a therapy dog. In addition, Providence Hospital has a therapy dog training program if you wish to visit them. Paula and Addie have gone through that training as well. Paula also recommends joining local Facebook groups of therapy dogs, including Western Washington Therapy Dogs and Washington Therapy Dogs.

For the teams, seeing how people react to the dogs they love so much, is gratifying. “People light up when they see the dogs,” shares Paula. “For some, it’s the physical contact they crave. For others, it’s an opportunity to share memories and stories. To some, the dogs just bring a smile or help to ease loneliness if only for a few minutes. People’s overall well-being improves around the dogs and I love being a part of that.”

Addie, a therapy dog in Thurston County, loves her visits, where she gets lots of attention! Here she is getting belly rubs from second graders. Photo credit: Paula Gayson
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