Does Your Dog Have What It Takes To be a Therapy Dog?
By Becky Heiner
Berry & Gino at “work” in the nursing home.
There are many registered therapy dogs in the US serving in nursing homes, hospices, schools and libraries that are certified through various organizations. Maybe you are looking for a way to give back to the community and help others. Plus, you have a nice, well mannered dog who gets along well with people and other animals. But is that enough for you to become a successful Therapy Dog Team?
Several major organizations and many more local and regional associations sponsor and test dog handler teams for certification in therapy work. Each organization has its own area of focus and regulations but in general, there are several all important qualities the team must possess in order to become a successful therapy team.
Attributes of Good Therapy Dogs
- Must be at least one year old
- Must be willing to go to a stranger and express interest in that person
- A stable temperament. Dog must be willing to go up to a person in a wheelchair
- A dog who can recognize a person who wants to play in a rowdy fashion vs. a person who wants just to cuddle.
- Tolerates other animals
- Displays good canine manners
- Is healthy and well groomed
- Does not show avoidance or stress in new situations
- Walks on a loose leash and responds positively to handler’s commands, praises and corrections
A good therapy dog goes beyond just wanting to be petted. The dog may enjoy laying his head on a stranger’s lap, smile at a stranger, or even ask to be picked up. Large dogs are an easy reach for people in chairs; little dogs are easy to lift on a bed. Smooth coats work well in the warm temperatures of nursing homes, and coated dogs excel in outdoor visits in cool weather. The roughness of a wire coat provides a tactile advantage for sight impaired folks.
Several national organizations regulate, test, and register dogs and their volunteer handlers to participate in animal visiting programs. An internet search will provide you with a wealth of information on local and national therapy groups. A few of the national organizations and their websites are listed below.
If you intend to become a registered therapy dog team, choose an organization with which to affiliate. Make sure you understand your evaluating organization’s testing procedures, strategies, mission, insurance and other requirements before you begin the process. Another factor to consider is the cost of certification. Prices can vary widely among the different groups.
Therapy Dogs Incorporated: www.therapydogs.com
TDInc (corporate office: Cheyenne, WY) does an in-person evaluation and three observation visits.
Delta Society: www.deltasociety.org
Delta Society requires the “human end” of the team to complete their Pet Partners training prior to evaluating the dog, and they do offer a home study version of the course for those who cannot attend in person. Another requirement to note is that Delta Society does not allow their registered dogs to be fed a raw food diet. This website is a good source of information on service animals, therapy animals, health benefits of animals, and research studies. It also has a good explanation of the difference between “animal assisted activity” (i.e. visiting with your registered therapy dog) and “animal assisted therapy” (animal used in a specific treatment plan by a professional).
Therapy Dogs International: www.tdi-dog.org
Therapy Dogs International (corporate office New Jersey) requires the dog/handler team to pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen test plus an additional evaluation. Another rule to note is that this organization does not allow their members to belong to any local visiting groups. The reason behind this is that they want to avoid conflicts with other therapy groups in case an incident arose. When medical bills are involved, most groups would rather pay for bills themselves than argue over who the team was visiting under when the incident occurred.
Other Factors to consider when choosing an organization:
- Insurance – do you need to provide your own, or will you be covered under theirs?
- Diet (raw feeding allowed)
- Ability to perform visits with other clubs
Evaluations and Preparation
For most evaluations, therapy dogs need to have some basic obedience skills but need not perform to strict formal standards such as perfect heel position. Obedience classes are very helpful in socializing and teaching the dog how to behave in a group, but are not required.
Evaluation/testing may include, but not be limited to:
- Meeting a friendly stranger
- Walking on a loose lead
- Tolerating other animals
- Team appearance and grooming
- Dog comes when called or looks to handler for direction
- Feeling at ease in an unfamiliar place
- Feeling confident when faced with common distractions
- Ability to “leave it” on command
- Accepting stroking and petting from the evaluator or friendly stranger
- Accepting touching feet and ears from the evaluator
- Moving through several people or a crowd
- Moving near a person who walks unsteadily or has an unusual appearance or demeanor
- At ease around medical equipment such as a wheelchair or walker
- Handler’s appropriate correction for poor behavior
- Handler’s appropriate praise for good behavior
Not every dog/handler team is cut out to do therapy work. The same could be said for agility, tracking, obedience, etc. Each dog and handler are unique individuals and we must remember that our niche may be in another area. According to Cathy Crim, FTN newsletter editor and TDInc evaluator “Many people think they have the perfect dog even though an evaluator can tell that just isn’t so. It is a challenge to keep someone positive while making recommendations for required improvement (like walking on a loose lead). Sometimes the evalulator’s suggestions fall on deaf ears and a person doesn’t return for re-evaluation. But most of the time, people follow through and are successfully evaluated.”
Ideas for preparing to be a therapy dog team
- Take lots of walks, especially in places where you are likely to encounter people and possibly other dogs—parks, bike paths, sidewalks near businesses or schools, businesses which allow dogs such as Murdoch’s or PetCo. Ask anywhere you do business, such as your insurance agent, a realtor’s office, car repair shop, etc., if you may bring your dog in for a few minutes, explaining that your dog is in training. Don’t allow your dog to rush up to a person or dog.
- Use a special collar or leash when you are going to practice, and choose a special phrase or command such as “let’s go to work” or “let’s go to school.” Keep the session short at first, ending with praise (i.e. “Good work!” and petting, then put on the dog’s regular leash. The dog will learn it has to behave a little differently than just a fun walk or playtime.
- Touch your dog’s feet, ears, tail, and mouth frequently and ask others to pet and handle your dog when you are confident your dog will accept it.
- Take walks with a friend and his/her dog. For part of the time, put on the “special” leash and work on walking calmly side by side with no sniffing, pulling, jumping or playing allowed.
- Set up situations where your dog can encounter new experiences gradually—children, people wearing hats, bicycle riders, shopping carts
- Many kennel clubs and dog training facilities offer classes and testing for the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test. This is an excellent place to start. Not only will your team learn basic obedience and polite doggy manners, it is a chance to socialize your dog with other people and dogs.
Cathy Crim shares this story:
“I have evaluated a few teams where the handler has previously been ill, or becoming a registered team is a real accomplishment for the handler. In these cases, visiting others with one’s own dog is as therapeutic for the handler as it is for the person being visited. For example, one man was going through the throes of “what to do in retirement.” He is hard of hearing, and was not very confident of himself or his dog. He even seemed somewhat down and very nervous when I first met him. He tested well enough to pass, and with suggestions for smooth visits, he made it through the three observations. Now he is a new man, he and his dog are very social and having a wonderful time…they go to the schools, library, and hospital”.
According to FTN and TDInternational team member, Becky Malivuk, “Berry had ONE very favorite resident named Trevor that passed away last July. This man was wheel chair bound and he used to man handle Berry very roughly. Trevor would pull Berry up onto his lap by the front legs and under the shoulders and Berry made himself comfortable in his lap/wheelchair. Usually we could see Berry’s tail wagging out the back side of the wheel chair. Trevor would love all over Berry with a rough hand and tease everyone else in the nursing home that this was HIS dog…and no one else could touch him. Berry looked for his friend every visit for over a year and when we found out Trevor had passed away, Berry literally went into depression. Berry has not found another “favorite” resident since although he still goes and enjoys resting at the feet of different residents and does his tricks for an audience.
Berry and his best friend
I think from my experience with Wires, versus many other breeds that do therapy work, each Fox Terrier has a very specific personality and each one works/volunteers in a different way.”
The therapy dogs in featured here are Berry and Gino, loved and trained by Becky Malivuk
Many thanks to Cathy Crimm, an evaluator for TDInc, Becky Malivuk and Berry, a Therapy Dog International therapy team, and Bonita G. Rodgers an evaluator for Therapy Dog International for their contributions to this article.