Therapy Dog Work

By Pat Kinch (October 2012)

Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Saint Paul Dog Training Club Newsletter. It is reprinted here with the author's permission.

Many of us enjoy the companionship of pets. In fact 63% of American households include pets. These animals do not ask for much, just a short list of the basics such as food, shelter, veterinary care and of course companionship. But pets offer far more in return, teaching us about love, improving our emotional and physical health and providing us with unconditional affection and friendship. Companion animals are natural teachers. They help people of all ages learn about responsibility, loyalty, empathy, sharing and unconditional love and support.

A therapy dog is a pet that provides emotional comfort by sharing its unconditional love and affection with adults and children. It is a dog that you own, train and certify to work with you as a therapy dog team.

Therapy dogs come in all sizes and breeds. Some therapy dogs have pedigrees while others have been adopted from a local shelter or rescue group. All of them provide an invaluable service. While many pets provide love and companionship in their homes, not all are qualified or have the temperament suited to be a therapy dog. A therapy dog has an outstanding temperament, has obedience skills, tolerates other animals, WANTS to visit with people, loves children and gets along with other dogs.

You have to ask yourself "Is Pet Visiting for Me and My Dog?" This is a team effort. Therapy work is not for all dogs or people. You cannot make a dog like therapy work.

Is Your Dog Both Calm and Friendly?

  • You need to honestly evaluate your dog's personality and social skills.
  • How does your dog react to strangers on the street and in your home?
  • A good prospect for therapy work will enjoy meeting strangers; will actively approach in a calm manner.
  • A dog that is so happy it jumps up, or pushes with feet, body or nose, will need some work before visiting can begin.
  • A dog that is fearful or aggressive probably should not be considered for therapy work.

Does Your Dog Take Unusual Events, Sights and Sounds in Stride?

How does your dog react to unusual events? What happens when an alarm clock rings? Or the smoke alarm? Or some books fall off the shelf? Pans falling on the floor? Your dog should show interest in these unusual events, but calm readily. If the dog barks at a knock on the door, it should be quiet and under control when you open the door.

Does Your Dog Have Basic Good Manners?

  • Will your dog walk on a leash without pulling?
  • Will it sit or lie down when you tell it to do so?
  • Can you hand the leash over to someone else and then leave without the dog pulling, or making a lot of noise?
  • What happens when you walk past another person walking their dog?
  • Your dog must be reliable around dogs and other animals as well as people. While visiting you may meet other people with dogs.

Evaluate Your Dog's Personality

The people your dog visits must be absolutely safe from your dog. The dog must be forgiving of clumsy petting. Dog bites are not the only concern. Many of the people your dog may visit are very fragile. Frail skin tears easily. A friendly paw on an arm can cause ugly red welts and your dog will be blamed. A pet shove with nose or body can easily topple someone who is unsteady on their feet. Remember that even if your dog is not ready now that does not mean your dog will never be ready. If your dog is basically under control, and generally friendly, there is much you can do to help your dog get ready. In some cases it means simply waiting for your dog to mature. In other cases, it might mean revisiting basic obedience to build a strong foundation.

Things to Ask Yourself:

  • Do I enjoy visiting health care facilities?
  • Do I enjoy meeting strangers and making conversation with them?
  • Am I comfortable interacting with the elderly, children, the physically and mentally handicapped?
  • Do I have the time to make this type of commitment? This is equally, if not more important. Once you start visiting a facility, they count on your being there.

What Are the Benefits of Pet Therapy?:

Research has proven that therapy dogs have the ability to:
  • lower blood pressure;
  • lower cholesterol levels;
  • increases survival rates of people who have suffered cardiac arrest
  • relieve stress;
  • ease depression;
  • humanize the complexity of medical treatments;
  • help put patients at ease;
  • increase patient and staff morale;
  • provide social stimulation;
  • provide encouragement to communicate;
  • improve the quality of life;
  • help autistic children with their verbal skills;
  • stimulate memory in Alzheimer's patients; and
  • inspire happiness and laughter.

Certification Requirements:

Each national organization (Therapy Dogs International, Delta, Therapy Dogs Inc) has behavior and temperament standards that must be met for dogs to be certified. Basic and intermediate obedience training is a necessity, as the dogs are required to walk through a crowd on a loose leash, sit and down on command, stay in place and come on command. Dogs must politely accept being petted all over their body and hugged by strangers. The dogs have to be comfortable with medical equipment such as walkers, wheelchairs and canes to make sure they will be confident in a care facility. Dogs are also tested around other dogs and other distractions, to make sure they are reliable and stable in different situations. All dogs tested must be at least one year old and an annual health form must be completed and signed by a licensed veterinarian. It is a good idea to have your dog pass the ACK Canine Good Citizen Evaluation before starting therapy dog training.

If you would like more information on therapy dog work, check with your local dog training schools or contact: Pat Kinch, Therapy Dogs International, Chapter #125, Director, 763-497-5809.