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Dog Training: Pet Therapy
How much do you know about pet therapy and therapy dogs? I’ve been involved with dog training for years – almost my entire life, in fact. I had a very smart fox terrier as a kid, and I taught her all sorts of tricks. I gave her basic dog obedience training, as well as some just-for-fun dog training. She could jump through hoops, dance, and respond in humorous ways to questions I’d ask her. As an adult, I trained my own dogs, and I also trained hunting dog breeds for others, for pointing and retrieving game birds. More recently, I became involved in pet therapy. When my mother was moved into an assisted living facility, I used one of my Great Danes as a therapy dog. Mom, along with most of the other residents, loved seeing and interacting with Hamlet. They enjoyed stroking his massive head, scratching his belly, and hugging him. And he seemed to enjoy it just as much as they did! If you’re interested in learning how to train your dog to be a therapy dog, I’ve provided a few basic dog training tips that you might find helpful. Pet therapy is a wonderful, rewarding experience!
Before we get into dog training tips, let’s briefly discuss pet therapy. Pet therapy provides humans with the opportunity to interact with pets, often on a one-on-one basis. This human-animal interaction isn’t just enjoyable; it can also provide health benefits. For example, just petting an animal reduces the amount of stress hormones in humans. Some studies show that this exercise can also decrease blood pressure. Humans who feel isolated often find it easier to relate to pets than they do to other humans. This is especially seen in neglected and abused children.
The animals most often associated with pet therapy are dogs and cats, but practically any calm, friendly, well trained pet could potentially take part. Of course, some people are drawn more to cute, fuzzy critters than they might be to say, reptiles. I’m not entirely convinced that all animals can show affection for humans, and this display of affection is a big part of pet therapy.
An important element of pet therapy is acceptance. Pets fully accept us just as we are, without being judgmental. They don’t care how we look, how much money we have, or how much education we’ve achieved. For many people, it’s easier to show affection to and receive affection from an animal. Pet therapy can provide a way for shy or introverted humans to “reach out,” so to speak.
Pet therapy can work well in a number of situations. As I said, I’ve used it in nursing homes and senior care facilities. Some of the patients eagerly awaited Hamlet’s visits, so it gave them something to look forward to. Even a couple of patients who had very little to do with other humans readily responded to Hamlet.
My youngest daughter, Melissa, works in a large hospital. I asked her about her views on pet therapy, and she’s all for it. She said they use it regularly, especially with pediatrics patients and elderly patients. A lady with a calm, sweet Chihuahua brings her dog dressed in cute outfits and sunglasses, and the patients love it.
If you have a dog or other pet that would be a good match as a therapy dog, why not give pet therapy a try? Your pet might not have to be certified, depending on your local area and the specific places you visit. For example, I take Hamlet to a local elder care center, even though he doesn’t have official therapy dog certification, although I feel sure he could pass the test. I suppose the staff knows me well enough to trust my judgment. All I had to have was proof that he was up to date on his vaccinations.
Best Dog Breeds for Pet Therapy
What are the best dog breeds for pet therapy? Actually, the dog breeds aren’t as important as the individual canine is. Therapy dogs must possess a certain temperament. They need to be calm, patient, and friendly. They need to be willing to be affectionate with complete strangers. They also need to be very forgiving. Some humans, especially the elderly and small children, can be unintentionally rough with dogs and other pets. A therapy dog has to be able to forgive such mishandling.
I know I’ll get some negative feedback here, but personally, I think the best dog breeds for dog therapy are the larger dog breeds. Larger dogs are generally more forgiving to rough handling than are small breeds. For one thing, big dogs aren’t hurt as easily, so they’re less likely to respond to stimuli that might be painful for smaller dogs. Also, numerous large breeds have a laid-back personality, which lends itself to dog therapy and dog therapy training. Some of the best dog breeds for dog therapy are golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, clumber spaniels, old English sheepdogs, Newfoundlands, English pointers, English mastiffs, and Scottish deerhounds. Based on my personal experience, I also have to include Great Danes.
Of course, there are advantages with small dogs serving as therapy dogs. Small dogs can be placed into beds with bed-ridden people, and they can sit in laps, too. Both of these would be pretty hard to do with a 200-pound pooch. Another thing to consider is that some people are afraid of large dogs. When I first began taking Hamlet to the assisted living facility, some of the residents were afraid of him just because of his size. After just a couple of visits, however, he’d won the hearts of all but the most jaded dog-fearers. If you’re going to use a small dog for a therapy dog, you might want to at least consider a small dog with a sturdier build. Some good examples include the Welsh corgi, the pug, the French bulldog, the beagle, or a mixed breed. And, believe it or not, calm, well trained poodles can make excellent therapy dogs!
A few months ago, we adopted a young male Basset hound from our local animal shelter. After observing his interactions with kids, strangers, and other pets, I’ve decided he’d be great for pet therapy, and I’ve begun his training. Sparky weighs about fifty pounds, so he’s not exactly a small dog, but he’s a heck of a lot smaller than my Great Dane therapy dog. Also, Sparky, like all Basset hounds, has an incredibly sturdy build. He’s a tough pooch that can stand up to the grandkids, and he’s very non-threatening. I can understand why some people might be afraid of Hamlet, but I can’t imagine anyone’s being afraid of the hound dog. He’s charming and adorable!
If you’re ready now to verbally assault me for not mentioning your favorite breed, I completely understand! As I already mentioned, breed is not as important as temperament and dog therapy training. I’m sure there are representatives from all dog breeds that would make great therapy dogs, just as there are members from the breeds I’ve mentioned that would be lousy at pet therapy. For example, my other Great Dane, Grendel, doesn’t have the temperament needed in a therapy dog. It’s not that he’s aggressive – he’s too hyper, too rough at playing, and too “puppyish.” He gets excited and rambunctious much too easily, so I’m afraid he could inadvertently hurt someone.
Dog Obedience Training
Before engaging in dog therapy training, the canine first needs to be well versed in dog obedience training. This is best started while the dog is still a puppy. Obedience training has two basic purposes. One purpose is the commands that are learned, of course. Responding to your voice commands or hand signals can help keep your pet safe, your belongings safe, other animals safe, and humans who might come into contact with your dog safe. The second purpose of dog obedience training is about defining roles and boundaries. When you train a dog, you’re establishing a leadership role, and to comply to your wishes, the canine accepts a submissive role. Even if you were to teach your pet seemingly useless “tricks,” you’re creating the proper roles and opening up a form of communication between you and the animal. Teach your dog to respect you, but not to fear you. There’s a difference.
Canines that are to become therapy dogs need to learn basic commands that will be useful in the real world of pet therapy. Use the dog obedience training to establish the basics, like “come,” “sit,” “stay,” “down,” “heel,” “leave it, and “drop it.” Some dog trainers don’t like to teach the generic “NO” command, but I find it to be very useful, as it can cover many individual situations. Hamlet has a large vocabulary – far surpassing the commands I’ve mentioned. As long as your canine knows the basics and follows them without question, you might not need to teach other commands.
Obviously, future therapy dogs will also need to be potty trained and need to learn to alert you when they need to go outside. You certainly wouldn’t want to be in the middle of a pet therapy session and find that your dog has made a mess on the floor. Only after your dog is well trained in basic dog obedience should you consider using it for pet therapy. Dog obedience training isn’t enough on its own to create good therapy dogs, however. Your pooch will also need some advanced training, socializing, and conditioning.
How to Train a Therapy Dog
Therapy dogs need to be under the complete control of their owners/handlers at all times and be immediately and consistently responsive to commands. They need to readily submit to commands like “sit,” “down,” “come,” “stay,” and “no.” This is why dog obedience training is so important. If your pet has the basics down pat, and if it has the right temperament to serve as a therapy dog, only then should you consider dog therapy training.
Therapy dogs have to remain calm in all sorts of situations and in a variety of unexpected events. When training a therapy dog, expose it to all sorts of scenarios. A therapy dog shouldn’t mind being petted and handled by complete strangers, so you need to expose your dog to strangers as much as possible. If your dog isn’t used to such situations, you’ll do best to start gradually. You might want to start with taking your pet over to friends’ homes to see how he interacts with your pals – especially with those the dog doesn’t know well. If that goes well, take the pooch to larger gatherings of strangers.
Training a therapy dog should include allowing people to pet and rub the canine all over – not just a gentle pat on the head. Most any dog will submit to that. Your dog needs to be able to tolerate being touched anywhere on its body. Think about the people your dog might encounter in a therapy situation – toddlers, babies, emotionally disturbed children and adults, blind people, mentally challenged individuals, etc. Try to emulate this as much as possible in your dog training.
Therapy dogs also need to be confident in a variety of places and situations. They need to be unfazed in unfamiliar locations and occurrences, eventually becoming “immune” to loud noises, crowds, and commotion. To get Hamlet used to these things, I took him shopping with me, to pet stores and farm supply stores that allow dogs. Because he’s a handsome giant, he always got lots of attention from other shoppers who usually asked if they could pet him. These were good first experiences, as Hamlet didn’t have to encounter a large crowd of strangers at once in these situations.
When I was teaching at a local high school, I took Hamlet a couple of times to outdoor school events. The students loved him, and I got to see how he’d react to a large group of teenagers. I knew Hammie was great with my grandchildren and with my grandchildren’s friends, but I wasn’t completely sure how he’d react to lots of strange children, so I took him to crowded festivals. There, people of all ages and sizes interacted with the dog, and he enjoyed all the attention, even when kids clumsily hugged him. At that point, I felt sure Hamlet was therapy dog material.
Therapy dogs also need to lack aggression toward other pets and animals. You never know when other therapy dogs or pets might show up at a pet therapy session. Training a therapy dog should include exposure to and socialization with other dogs and other animals. Neutered dogs are usually less aggressive toward other dogs and pets, by the way, than are intact males. This isn’t usually such a big issue with female dogs, as they’re not normally as territorial.
Therapy Dogs International
Therapy Dog Certification
I’ve never gotten therapy dog certification for Hamlet because I’ve never needed it. All he needs to serve as a therapy dog at the facilities we visit is a current vet check, including his immunization record. That's because Hamlet and I have established a good reputation at these locales. If you want to broaden your pet therapy opportunities, however, you might want to get therapy dog certification. In some locations, therapy dogs are allowed into places where it wouldn’t be allowed, otherwise.
Different organizations have different requirements and guidelines for therapy dog certification. Some of these organizations are the American Kennel Club, Pet Pals, and Therapy Dogs, Inc. Common requirements might include the dog be at least one year old, be responsive to the handler, walk quietly on a leash, be calm around other animals, and allow being petted by strangers. Therapy dogs will also need a clean bill of health from a veterinarian and be up-to-date on vaccines. Therapy dogs need to be clean, too. Most organizations also require field observations.
One of the most popular pet therapy organizations is Therapy Dogs International. Their therapy dog certification test includes the fifteen points addressed in the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen Test:
1. Accepting a friendly stranger
2. Sitting to be petted
3. Grooming and appearance
4. Walking on a leash
5. Walking through crowds
6. ‘sit,” “down,” and “stay” commands
7. “come” command
8. Be polite around other dogs
9. Calmness with general distractions
10. Calmness around medical devices and equipment
11. Responds to “leave it” command
12. Confidence with infirmities (limping, shuffling, coughing, etc.)
13. Not exhibit anxiety away from its handler for short periods of time
14. Be willing to greet strangers
15. Behavior around children
To get therapy dog certification from Therapy Dogs International, the handler must also meet certain requirements. Handlers under the age of eighteen must be accompanied by an adult during therapy sessions, and all handlers must be of good moral character. The canines have to be at least twelve months of age and be healthy. Deaf dogs cannot be registered with Therapy Dogs International. Letters of recommendation from a veterinarian and any facilities you plan to visit for pet therapy are required. Required immunizations/vaccines include rabies, parvo, hepatitis, and distemper. Therapy dogs also need to have had a fecal exam within the past year and be on heart worm medication. If the dog isn’t on regular heart worm prevention, it needs to have had a heart worm check within the prior twelve months. Dogs that are on regular heart worm prevention need to have negative heart worm test results from a test performed in the previous two years. The fee for therapy dog certification test is usually nominal, but the rewards you gain from pet therapy can be huge.