Balancing Self-Care and Therapy Dog Work

by | March 23, 2023 | Blog

Learn how to prevent burnout through boundaries and self-care

Avoid volunteer burnout by implementing boundaries and a self-care routine for you and your Therapy Dog.

Therapy dogs and their handlers play a vital role in providing comfort, companionship, and emotional support to individuals in various settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and hospices. Working with therapy dogs can be very rewarding, but it can also be emotionally and physically challenging for both the dog and the handler. In this blog post, we’ll discuss how to recognize signs of burnout and offer tips for self-care, ensuring that you and your therapy dog can continue to make a positive impact on those you serve.

Recognizing Signs of Burnout

It’s essential for therapy dog handlers to be aware of the signs of burnout in themselves and their dogs. As Dena shared on Therapy Dog Talk Episode 59, look for signs of fatigue, lack of engagement, or changes in behavior in your dog. If you notice these signs, it’s crucial to advocate for your dog’s needs and provide them with the necessary rest and care.

For handlers, burnout may show as emotional exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, or even physical symptoms like headaches or fatigue. Elise from Episode 26 suggests having an outlet to relax and unwind after visits, as some days may be more emotionally challenging than others, particularly when supporting those who have lost a loved one or are in hospice.

Preventing Burnout

  1. Be mindful of your dog’s age and energy levels: Kristin from Episode 26 reminds us that younger dogs may have shorter attention spans and tire more quickly. Be aware of your dog’s limits and adjust visit durations accordingly.
  2. Advocate for your dog’s needs: As your dog ages, it’s crucial to pay attention to when they’re done with a visit. Elise from Episode 26 shares that her dog Moosh, nearing 10 years old, sometimes signals that he’s ready to leave after 35-45 minutes. Recognize these cues and be prepared to end visits when necessary.
  3. Take breaks and have downtime: Laura from Episode 64 emphasizes the importance of scheduled breaks for therapy dogs during visits. Ensure your dog has time to rest, hydrate, and use the bathroom.
  4. Incorporate variety and playtime: Ensure your therapy dog has opportunities to engage in activities they enjoy, like running, playing fetch, or going for walks. This helps them relax and recharge, as described by Mindy from Episode 63.
  5. Prioritize self-care: As a handler, it’s essential to recognize your own emotional and physical needs. Mel from Episode 60 reminds us that self-care is community care, as both you and your animal are part of the therapy process.
  6. Connect with others: Sarah from Episode 41 shares how she debriefs with her mother or other therapy dog teams after visits. This connection can provide emotional support and help process the emotions encountered during visits.
  7. Set boundaries: Be mindful of the number of therapy visits you and your dog can handle. It’s important to balance the desire to help others with the need for rest and self-care. As shared by Sarah from Episode 65, focusing on the connection and communication with your dog is crucial.

Tips for Preventing Burnout in Dog Training

  1. Keep training sessions short and sweet: The AKC recommends limiting training sessions to 15 minutes or less to maintain your dog’s focus and prevent frustration.
  2. Use positive reinforcement: Praise, treats, and affection can make training sessions more enjoyable and motivating for your dog.
  3. Mix it up: Incorporate different activities and training techniques to keep sessions interesting and engaging.
  4. Give your dog (and yourself) a break: Schedule rest days and downtime between training sessions to allow for physical and mental recovery. Remember that it’s okay to take a break when needed, as mentioned by Kristin from Episode 26
  5. Know when to stop: Pay attention to your dog’s body language and energy levels, and end training sessions before frustration or fatigue sets in.
  6. Be patient and adjust expectations: Recognize that progress may be slower on some days, and that’s okay. As Sarah from Episode 65 emphasizes, being gentle with both your dog and yourself is essential for long-term success.

Avoiding burnout is essential for the well-being of therapy dogs and their handlers. By being mindful of the signs of burnout, prioritizing self-care, and implementing the tips mentioned above, you can ensure that you and your therapy dog continue to provide comfort and support to those in need.

Remember that advocating for your dog, connecting with others, and taking breaks when necessary will help maintain a strong and rewarding bond between you and your canine companion.

Balance is Part of the Puzzle

Embracing balance by setting boundaries and practicing self-care is an important life skill for Therapy Dog teams. You and your dog also need to be calm, confident and resilient.

Are you ready to learn more about these skills? Then my course, “Life Skills for Therapy Dog Teams,” is perfect for you. This course will help you and your dog to grow in your relationship and be even more effective in therapy visits.

Don’t miss this chance to make your Therapy Dog skills even better. Enroll now at sherrierohde.com/course!

Course title on laptop screen

Recommended Resources

  1. The Set Boundaries Workbook Practical Exercises for Understanding Your Needs and Setting Healthy Limits: by Nedra Glover Tawwab, MSW, LCSW
  2. The Book of Boundaries: Set the Limits That Will Set You Free by Melissa Urban
  3. Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA
  4. Burnout: The Cost of Caring by Christina Maslach
  5. How to Prevent Burnout in Dog Training by Sassafras Lowrey, CTDI

Disclosure: I may earn affiliate income from the links on this page. It comes at no extra cost to you but helps to support Sunny and Rylie’s treat fund. They say thank you very much in advance.

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