Making therapy visits can be great enrichment for the right dog and make you feel good about giving back to the community. But it’s important that therapy pets love their work, and for some dogs it may be too stressful. If you’re considering getting into this, make sure your dog will be an enthusiastic partner.
“We have to be prudent about not putting our own emotions on our dogs,” says Lynn Powell, board chair for The Dog Alliance in Cedar Park, Texas, and a therapy dog handler for six years. “It’s good work, it makes me feel awesome when I go on a visit, it serves a lot of people. But you have to look at your dog and not just go off your own emotions.”
What to Consider
How can you know if your dog might be well suited?
Ask yourself some questions, says Amy McCullough, American Humane’s senior research advisor. She’s lead author of a research study that evaluated how therapy dogs feel about their work and has been a therapy dog handler since 2001.
The first? “What does my dog do when he or she meets a new person outside the home?”
For therapy work, you want a dog who enjoys meeting new people. To judge this, look at actual behavior, not wished-for behavior. Does your dog walk toward strangers happily or does he need to be persuaded? Notice if he reacts differently to different people; maybe an adult approaching calmly is fine but a rowdy toddler is a different story.
How is your dog around other dogs? Can she be calm and not distracted in their presence? There will often be other dogs in the therapy setting, and it’s not enough to be non-aggressive; your dog needs to understand that seeing another dog isn’t an opportunity to play.
Does your dog know basic obedience cues? You won’t be disqualified if you have to say “sit” twice, but the dog needs to be under control. “If the dog is in a sit-stay beside the owner and someone approaches, they can’t just go barreling up to say hi,” says Powell.
If all of that checks out, start testing your dog in situations that will help you see how he might react to various therapy visit experiences. When doing this, be aware of your dog’s stress signals. “Every dog’s signals are a little bit different,” McCullough says. These signs can be subtle: lip licking, yawning, looking away, looking toward the door can all be signs of stress. If that’s news to you, do some research–there are lots of good resources with illustrations–and start learning how to read your dog.
Therapy visits take place in unfamiliar and potentially busy settings, so visit a variety of dog-friendly public places. “If you go to Home Depot and are being realistic at watching your dog, you may see some things that make you realize it won’t work,” Powell says.
Practice at home. A therapy dog evaluation may test how your dog reacts to something startling such as a loud noise. Does your dog startle then recover quickly or cower and want to leave the room?
Your dog needs to take unusual movements and objects in stride. “In a nursing home, people may walk with an unsteady gait or make odd vocalizations,” says Powell. “That trips up a lot of dogs.” Try to accustom your dog to these things by pairing them with treats to make them a positive experience. McCullough sometimes rents crutches or a wheelchair so those won’t be completely new to the dog.
People will want to pet your dog. Pay attention to how your dog prefers to be touched. You can work with the dog on areas where he’s hesitant, for instance by touching a paw and treating, but your job as a handler is to facilitate interactions so they are positive for everyone. You’ll need to be able to point out that your dog prefers to be petted in a certain way.
If your dog is uncomfortable with any of these experiences, it’s worth working on it with a trusted professional positive reinforcement trainer, but be conscious of the line between helping him get comfortable with an unfamiliar experience and pushing him to do something. “I’ve seen lots of dogs work on things and are fine,” Powell says. “Others have been tested three or four times and it’s obvious to everyone except the owner that the dog is not liking it. It’s not for everybody.”
Training and Qualifications
Powell’s group offers classes for aspiring therapy dog teams, but if something like this isn’t available where you live, classes for the Canine Good Citizen test are common and cover many of the important skills.
Tests for therapy dogs are not standardized and most groups are local and independent, so make sure you’re comfortable with the group you’re thinking of working with. “I think an important thing to look for is how much they want you to advocate for your animal and wants you to make sure your dog is happy and comfortable and safe,” says McCullough. “Maybe a kid doesn’t want your dog to leave, but you can tell that your dog is ready to end the visit. A group should empower you to say, ‘My dog is uncomfortable.’”
Once you’ve passed the test and are ready to start working, determine what kinds of settings your dog prefers to work in. A low-energy or older dog might like to lie around while a child reads aloud; a young, active dog might have different preferences. Individual facilities have different challenges. Powell’s group certifies dogs at three different levels depending on whether they can handle more complex and unpredictable environments.
Follow your dog’s lead. If you have a passion for a certain kind of facility, don’t let that blind you. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I putting the dog first; am I choosing a setting because I like it or because my dog really likes it?’” says McCullough.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.