January 2015

Evaluating and Training a Therapy Dog

Author: Abby Bird

While many people have dogs that they love, some have been blessed with dogs that have specific temperament, behavior and obedience skills that may make them suitable to volunteer with their owners in the community. What a wonderful benefit—to have both person and dog give back to those who need them.

A therapy dog is a dog that, once trained and certified, can be taken to assisted living facilities, hospitals, rehab centers, residential communities, after school centers, schools and the like. There are differentiations as to where the dog and owner may visit based upon the level of training and testing of the dog.

I am told all the time, “My dog loves people.” Unfortunately that is not the only qualification for a therapy dog. While it is essential that your dog seek the attention and affection from strangers, it is just not that easy. So what are we looking for in evaluating a dog and its owner for this rewarding and demanding community volunteerism?

Owners must have good communication skills, empathy, patience and enjoy being around other people who need both their attention as well as their dog’s attention. Therapy dogs can visit the lonely, elderly, injured, infirm, dying, disabled, stressed, children and more. A dog or owner who stresses easily and is nervous or anxious is not a suitable candidate.

There must be an exceptional bond between owner and dog, as they are a team in the enjoyment of pleasing others. Often the dog is a link between the one being visited and the owner, opening up communication, sometimes verbal, other times just by a touch or a look.

The dog must be trained to loose-leash walk by the owner’s side, under control, on a six-foot leash. Regular collar and non-moveable harnesses are acceptable—no clothing or retractable leashes or choke chains. The dog must also know basic commands such as sit, stay, lie down, leave it, focus and come. The dog cannot be an incessant jumper.

If a dog knows most of these things but is not perfect, that is where training comes in. The first level of training is usually a Canine Good Citizen class, which is offered by many local dog trainers. It is an AKC program leading to a 10-part test at the end of the course. If your dog can already do everything on the test, then the test may be administered without classes. Free evaluations are generally offered to determine this as well as if you and your dog are candidates. Courses and testing range in price from $120-$150, with a $10 fee for the test.

Behaviors and temperament around strangers evaluated when trained and tested:
• Is the dog willing to come and say hello without jumping?
• Can the dog sit quietly while being petted?
• Can the dog ignore people if no attention is in the offing?
• How does the dog react to people using equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers and the like?
• Can the dog walk up a hallway with many people and equipment and remain under an owner’s control while commands are given?
• Will the dog wait with a stranger without showing anxiety, barking, pulling etc. while the owner disappears for a short period of time?
• Is the dog desensitized to its natural reaction to sudden loud noises such as a metal bowl or can being dropped behind it?
• Can the dog execute commands such as sit, lie down, stay, and come in a new environment?
• Will the dog allow a stranger to handle its paws and brush and touch its body as if being examined and also for affection?
• Under an owner’s control on a leash, can the dog ignore other dogs as they pass by with other people and even stop as the other owner greets its owner? (This is the toughest)!
If you and your dog pass this rigorous testing and become CGC certified, you may, if you wish, join Hos-Pets, a division of Hospice Care of the Lowcountry (visiting Hospice is not a requirement but the not-for-profit group is an umbrella organization allowing locals to visit 17 area residential assisted living and rehab centers). You may also join the PAWS to Read program offered at the Bluffton and Hilton Head Boys and Girls Club and volunteer with kids that need help reading or just enjoy books and want to share their pleasure.

The next level after CGC is a therapy dog organization training and certification, which allows you to go to hospitals and also to tutor reading in public schools. There are a few groups including Therapy Dogs International (TDI), TD Inc., Pet Partners and Therapy Pets Unlimited that have similar testing. Not all are available locally.

Some of the additional requirements, depending on the group are: being tested in a group format rather than individually; appropriate reactions around active and noisy children; leaving human food and other tempting items alone that are on the ground or on a person’s lap.

At all levels, your dog must be brushed, clean and smelling fresh, and have its nails filed or dremeled, not just cut.

*A therapy dog is not a service dog and does not have the right to accompany you to restaurants, hotels, trains etc. Service dogs perform a medical support service for their owners, not for others, and are subject to different regulations. 

For more information, please contact: Abby Bird at alphadogtrainingacademy@gmail.com or call (843) 304-4327.

Let Us Know what You Think ...

commenting closed for this article