Therapy Dog Training – Is It for You and Your Dog?

As the health benefits of interacting with dogs become increasingly documented, so does the demand for therapy dogs.  Many hospitals have K9 visiting programs that are active and always looking for more handler-dog teams.  Nursing homes, libraries, and schools also figure into this mix.  The newest K9 team visiting venues are courts, prisons, and disaster sites.  There are several organizations that test teams and organize visits.  This may be a wonderful way to volunteer for certain types of people and their dogs.

Born or Made?

Are great therapy dogs born or made?  This is twist on the nature/nurture question.  Understanding what qualities are required at both ends of the leash set up for a compelling argument that great therapy dogs are born.  The dog must thrive on the work and roll with every challenge that comes with it.  A friendly dog is not necessarily a perfect candidate.  A sweet, sensitive soul may not fare well in therapy environments.  These places and the clients (patients, residents, students, witnesses, inmates, victims) that a therapy team visits are outside of many norms that a dog faces day-to-day.  These dogs are bomb-proof. 

Advanced Obedience is a Start

Organizations that test therapy dogs for registration have an evaluation process.  The AKC’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test provides good guidelines as to the obedience training standard that one should expect.  Dogs under a year of age are not tested for therapy dog registration.  Achieving the checklist points on the CGC takes diligent work over a lengthy period of time.  It doesn’t matter how well a dog behaves in her home; therapy work demands a ton of out and about training. 

It’s Complicated…..

It’s not only the dog who undergoes an evaluation.  Handlers do, too!  Visiting clients in a variety of settings is an enormous potential liability for those facilities.  Everyone must do their jobs, so there are no incidents, and the visit brings comfort to the client.   The small details matter.  For example, using a verbal obedience cue (“Leave it” vs. “Not for you”) that might be harshly spoken risks upsetting a client.  The presence of many rolling objects, irregular body movements, and unusual smells are the tip of the iceberg.  Anything can, and does, happen.

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2019 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC