When Scotty Richardson evaluates a therapy dog, he puts it through the hug test.
“I actually have to get down on the floor with the dog, and pet the dog roughly. It’s going to happen, kids are going to be obstreperous,” he said. “I have to give the dog the restraining hug. I’m putting my arm around these Akitas and Dobermans for 15 to 30 seconds. If you get a dog that just loves that hug, then they will just lay into you.”
Richardson, 73, and his wife, Michael Kay Richardson, 74, work through Columbia River Pet Partners to test potential therapy dogs and their trainers, and they have plenty of experience to draw on. The couple have been raising and training golden retrievers to be therapy dogs for the past 20 years in their Vancouver home, and their dogs have appeared in the community for just as long. In all, they’ve owned nine golden retrievers.
One of their retrievers, 9-year-old Crunch, was awarded the American Kennel Club’s Therapy Dog Distinguished title for more than 400 therapy visits. He has a complex rating, rather than a predictable rating, meaning he can work in difficult environments such as hospitals and jails.
“He actually had 700 hours; he’s way over 800 right now,” Scotty Richardson said. Crunch’s visits include jails and juvenile detention centers around the region, libraries and hospitals, such as PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center’s cancer unit.
“You have to be a really solid dog to go in there. There’s lots of tubes; it’s a complex environment,” he said of the cancer unit.
Find Out More
For more information about therapy animals in the region, visit the website for Columbia River Pet Partners, which offers handler courses and evaluations and matches teams with the right facilities.
Despite his age and his current fight with cancer, Crunch hasn’t slowed down a bit. “He lives to visit, loves to go to the hospital. We’re going to continue to work him as long as he wants to work,” he said.
Crunch also is part of the Cascade Canine Crisis Response, which sends therapy dogs to the scenes of traumatic events, such as the 2014 shooting at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Ore.
When the dog visits juvenile detention centers, psychologists observe how the teens there interact with Crunch. Therapy dogs often help open teens up for talking to a psychologist.
“Dogs are very intuitive, and Crunchy knows when one of those kids really likes him, and when one of the kids is just putting up with him,” Scotty Richardson said.
Jails and detention centers are not the most stressful work environment for therapy dogs, however.
“I would say working at the library with the little kids, it’s probably one of — most dangerous isn’t the right word — but you really gotta be careful,” he said. “Little kids, you just don’t know what they’re going to do.”
Richardson and his wife became interested in golden retrievers years ago at a mushroom hunting camp, where they bonded with a golden retriever named Sunny.
“I fell in love with that dog,” he said. Soon they were owners of two golden retrievers, Peggy Sue, their first puppy, and Becky, a rescue dog, and they were traveling to different golden retriever events around the country, meeting with breeders, dogs and trainers.
In addition to Crunch, the couple’s current dogs include Jasper, an 18-month old puppy better described as a “bottle rocket” by Richardson.
“Why do people in their mid-70s get puppies? It’s a very good question,” he said. They’re waiting another year to see if Jasper will calm down for therapy training.
The couple’s third dog is named Willy, who Scotty Richardson describes as a sweet dog. But Willy will never be a therapy dog because he’s not comfortable outside of his own environment.
Living, loving, laughing
The humor involved in dog ownership was one of the reasons Scotty Richardson began sharing stories of his golden retrievers.
“I’d have these little stories running around in my head like a marble in the fish bowl, so I’d just go to the computer and write,” he said. “They’re clowns, they really are. They make you laugh, they just improve your life, even when they’re crazy.”
He shared his stories on an email list for golden retriever fans known as “Golden and Hobbs” in the 1990s. He saved all of those stories about his dogs and compiled some into the self-published book titled “Living, Loving and Laughing with Golden Retrievers,” available through Amazon.
He hopes to sell 1,000 to 1,200 books to break even on production costs; money made beyond that would go toward golden retriever rescue. He said the book should appeal to all dog lovers, because the stories focus on “the interactions you’d have with your animal. Some stories are serious, most are not.”
The cover photo shows his late dog Earnie performing his master trick: holding four tennis balls in his mouth. Earnie visited classrooms to teach children about pet responsibility and bite prevention.
“We’d say Earnie has a trick, how many balls do you think he can pick up? No one would guess four, and the children would cheer.” He said Earnie’s picture was posted across the country, and an insurance agency in Texas used his tennis ball photo for an ad campaign.
In the end, he said, working with therapy dogs in the community is about joy.
“You’re bringing joy to people who really have no joy,” he said.