Table of Contents
Unlike other dog-related activities, training a therapy dog doesn’t need laser-sharp precision or flashy obedience. Your dog doesn’t even need to be particularly young – in fact, it’s one of the few jobs where age may be an advantage. So long as you’ve got a willing teammate, you can take it at your own pace, and enjoy the ride. If you’re keen to learn how to train a therapy dog, we’ve laid out the main points below.
Start by looking at your dog’s true nature
We touched on a few of the essential character traits in What Is A Therapy Dog. Feel free to skip to the next section if you’re already schooled on the ideal therapy dog temperament.
Does your dog adore people?
Therapy work can be exhausting, even for dogs who enjoy it. For this reason, it is especially important that your dog loves people. Ideally, he lives for the next human interaction, and actively seeks out people to share his love with. If your pet adores people of all shapes and sizes and every walk of life, they’re ticking a crucial box
Since you’ll often be encountering the elderly or those who are ill or injured, your dog can’t be too boisterous. They should have a quiet, calm air and be able to stay relaxed when the need arises.
Is your dog skittish or reactive when something unexpected happens?
Accidents happen at the drop of a hat, especially when people’s coordination and mobility are impaired. Sometimes things will fall or break nearby. Sometimes your pet’s paw could be stepped on, or a patient will grab their fur just that bit too hard. Your dog should be able to handle sudden shocks without reacting or becoming defensive.
How is your dog with other animals?
Occasionally you won’t be the only therapy dog team around. In addition, family members may bring in beloved pets to visit their ageing owners in the nursing home. Regardless of the circumstances, your dog needs to be able to stay neutral when other animals are around. Therefore, any fear, over-excitement or aggression would be totally unacceptable and should be rehabilitated or trained out before you go for your evaluation.
If you feel your dog shows all the signs of a natural leaning toward therapy work, and has a super social and stable temperament, move on to the next step.
Find a reputable organisation to join
There are a number of volunteer organisations around the US, each with a different certification process. As a result, it’s important that you decide on who you will be working with before you focus on training a therapy dog. Since different crowds have different requirements and evaluation protocols, spending months teaching your dog one set of behaviours, when it was meant to learn something else entirely can be an unfortunate time sink.
Head online and search for therapy dog organisations near you. You could also contact vet’s offices, animal shelters, trainers, hospitals and nursing homes and ask them which groups tend to be most active in therapy work in the area.
How to train a therapy dog, and what to (generally) focus on:
Since every organisation is different, we can’t get too specific on training. What we can offer, however, is general principles to keep in mind, and the three main areas to focus on.
As can be expected, it is essential that you have great verbal control over your dog when doing therapy work. There are plenty of free and cheap resources available to help you master basic obedience if you’re on a tight budget. Commands like sit, down, stand, stay, come, heel, leave it and drop it will be most useful.
As well as looking online, there are a number of books available that provide useful step-by-step training guides, so that you can have a reliably trained dog in just a few weeks.
Manners are a bit different to obedience in that you expect the dog to behave in a particular way, even when you’re not telling them what to do. For example, loose-leash walking has a huge focus in therapy dog evaluations. You won’t necessarily be telling your dog to walk nicely, he should already know the rules for when the leash is on. Other essential manners include:
- no jumping up, pulling, whining or barking for any reason
- no greeting without permission
- staying calm when times are quiet, and when anyone approaches
- taking treats gently (when they’re allowed to)
- allowing strangers to touch various parts of their body, including the ears, feet and tail (often iffy spots for dogs)
- staying calm when you (their handler) leave the area for 5+ minutes
- ignoring other dogs
- leaving food alone
Exposure and desensitisation
Often the trickiest area for dog owners, exposure is also perhaps the most essential. Since your dog would be allowed near those who are elderly, weak, injured and generally more vulnerable, it is absolutely crucial that your dog is trustworthy in unpredictable circumstances. What do we mean by this? Just like people, some dogs are jumpier than others. Some naturally aren’t phased by loud banging, or new objects, while others are innately more suspicious of new things or sudden noises.
Thankfully, if you’ve already established that your dog has a stellar temperament for therapy work, you simply need to expose and desensitise them to as many new experiences as possible (while still being sensible and safe) so that nothing really catches them off guard later down the line.
A few things that could show up in the evaluation to test your dog’s response are:
- People running, staggering or walking on crutches from any direction
- Being grabbed or petted, roughly
- Dropping or banging of loud objects (such as pots or crutches)
- Being touched anywhere on their body
- Being brushed by a stranger
- Someone approaches in a wheelchair (often your dog will have never seen one of these before)
- Children running, screaming, throwing balls, jumping rope, skateboarding, and generally acting like kids
Your dog can not show any sort of shyness, over-excitement fear or aggression in any of the above circumstances. As an example, if they pull away when the evaluator touches their paw, or if they cower when a crutch is dropped, you can expect that the assessor will fail them. It certainly is a tall order, which is why not every dog is suited to this sort of work.
What most evaluators are really looking for is great handler focus. How you train your therapy dog is up to you, but if you can show your assessor that your dog is temperamentally sound, pays close attention, and can be kept calm and under control, you’re a pretty much there.
Attending a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) training class is often the perfect place to start. There is much overlap with CGC training and the obedience and manners needed for therapy work. In addition, being in a group class inherently lets you work on desensitisation and exposure, as well as letting you practice maintaining your dog’s focus while there are distractions all around.
References and recommended reading:
- Therapy Dog International – http://www.tdi-dog.org/
- PetPartners – http://petpartners.org/