Marissa Rivera enrolled in My Vinyasa Practice’s 200-hour spring yoga teacher training to deepen her practice and help her understand how yoga therapy can be integrated into her practice as a therapist. Rivera is passionate about holistic therapy and helping her clients work through intergenerational ancestral trauma in the BIPOC & LGBTQ spaces. She knew she wanted to incorporate emotional support animals in her practice, so she made the decision to rescue a pup named Bruce Wayne, and to train him as a therapy animal.
“My intention was to have an emotional support animal. I wanted a dog that would integrate well with my practice (as a therapist).”
When Rivera rescued Bruce Wayne, he was still a puppy. In 2012, Rivera rescued a three-month Italian Greyhound mix. Rivera waited until Bruce approached his second birthday to begin his training.
“There is no uniform criteria nationwide, in terms of the training required for an emotional support animal. I knew I wanted to take him through a program that would be taken seriously.” Rivera noted.
She enrolled Bruce in Divine Canines after he passed the Canine Good Citizen Exam. The Canine Good Citizen Exam takes basic training up a notch so that dogs learn to respond to commands at a distance. This process took three months, and during this time, Bruce spent two months training and a month testing. The test involves 10 items which include a focus on being calm in social settings and responding to commands from a distance.
From there, Rivera reached out to Divine Canines and enrolled in therapy dog training. The process takes two and a half months and entails in-person and group training in stressful situations.
“We did our training at Austin State Hospital in the geriatric unit. Bruce got used to the sounds of a hospital, the business of a hospital, and being able to interact with the patient while remaining calm and having good manners. Learning how to cope with the chaos, while still being able to respond to commands, is basically field training.” Rivera recalls.
Divine Canines put them through another round of testing at the field site. Once Bruce passed, we received our vest. A therapy dogs’ vest is a sign that you finished training, and that you are in good standing with Divine Canines. Every year, dogs have to retest in the same setting to make sure that the training is being upheld. Bruce has been re-certified six times.
Bruce is a working dog. He has a few sites that he would visit regularly including the Phoenix House, The Settlement Home and various AISD High School sites. Bruce also worked with the UT athletes to help them regulate their nervous system and de-stress.
Bruce spends most of his time working in Rivera’s practice as a therapist.
“In my practice, he comes to the office frequently to help with clients who have never been to therapy before. He helps clients be at ease. Sometimes clients would hold him while they were processing through trauma to help prevent dissociation and needed grounding. He also helped with individuals who had a lot of social anxiety and helped them learn how to be more assertive. He is a very intuitive pup, and would respond to the energy of the client.”
Allopathic medicine has known that connecting to pets helps to regulate the sympathetic nervous system’s during a hyper-aroused state, in addition to regulating blood pressure. Bruce continues to provide clients at Ola Wellness with the unconditional love and attention that only an emotional support animal can provide. Rivera is grateful for Bruce. She continues to work with him to educate and provide support to the community.
It takes time and patience to train and work with a therapy animal.
“Having a therapy animal takes a lot of responsibility. A well-trained Therapy Animal provides a lot of support to the community. Responsible ownership is important; don’t go buy a vest online. Put your animal through the proper training program if you want to have a therapy animal.” Rivera noted.
Therapy animals, also called emotional support animals, can be an asset to communities. Schools, hospitals and rehabilitation centers leverage therapy animals to help their patience regulate their nervous system. If you’re interested in training your animal to be a therapy animal, train your animal to fulfill any prerequisites required by the therapy animal training center, and do the due diligence to take your animal through complete and thorough training.