By Kathy Diamond Davis Author and Trainer Therapy Dog Work: Is This the Job for Your Dog? A therapy dog accompanies a handler, usually a member of the dog's family acting in a volunteer capacity, on visits to various settings in order to provide emotional benefits to the people there. Therapy Dogs International has registered these dogs as therapy dogs for more than 20 years, and other registries for volunteers and their therapy dogs also use the term. This is the therapy dog job we'll discuss here. Every Therapy Dog Needs a Handler The first thing to decide is whether you or another member of your family is suited, interested and available to take your dog on therapy dog visits. To find out, locate a therapy dog handler or group and arrange to go along on several visits as an observer without taking your dog. Several things will likely become apparent as you make these initial visits. Notice whether you actually enjoy going into these settings to provide emotional benefits to people. If not, arrange observation visits to other types of facilities to see if you feel more suited to volunteer there. Consider, too, whether perhaps you are really looking for a dog sport or activity to pursue with your dog. Therapy dog work is a volunteer job, a community service, that doesn't fit everyone. It's much better to discover this is not a good fit for you before a lot of volunteer hours have been used to train you and your dog for the work. Sometimes people hear about therapy dog work before they hear about the many and varied recreational activities available to them with their dogs. Dig deep to find what really appeals to you. Will you be able to faithfully meet the schedule of regular therapy dog visits? If not, consider joining an educational-type group with your dog instead. Then informing the public is the goal, rather than providing emotional support to folks who need to be able to count on regular visits from the therapy dog they'll grow to love. Educational visits can be one-time programs, not requiring that you make a long-term commitment to a particular schedule. Do you enjoy interacting with people in an open and friendly manner with your dog? This is great fun for many handlers, but some simply find it a poor fit for their personalities or their preferred dog-handling styles. Think about this as you observe therapy dog visits, and also as you take your dog with you around the public at other times. Therapy dogs and their handlers are the "public relations specialists" of the working dog world. Is this what you want to do? If so, much of it can be learned, so don't be discouraged because you feel shy or unskilled at this point. Step One If you don't have a dog, getting a dog is not the first step to therapy dog work. People who start this way often find the dog does not in fact become a therapy dog. Instead, after you've done several observation visits, get involved as a volunteer in training programs for therapy dogs. Learn to assist, so that you can go along on therapy dog visits and greatly add to the effectiveness of dogs and handlers. Before long, you'll be known in the local group for your dedication, and the right dog will come. Therapy dogs are not in short supply, handlers are. Once it's clear that you have the heart for the work and demonstrate dog-handling skill based on diligent practice acquired in classes and on visits, other handlers will help you get the right dog. More importantly, you will be much better equipped to recognize the right dog when you find him or her. Training Class Therapy dogs and their handlers need to be able to function well in orderly dog-training classes. If you're a skilled trainer training your own dog, or are working with a private trainer, don't consider yourself and your dog ready for therapy dog testing until you've successfully attended training classes. Choose classes where the dogs are kept under control, because of course traumatizing your dog is not the goal! Attend as many class sessions as necessary for your dog to develop and demonstrate the ability to work calmly around other dogs. A dog who cannot do this and do it consistently is not ready for therapy dog work. Other dogs are one of the highest-powered distractions any dog can be asked to handle. That's why it's so important that you master this situation with your therapy dog. In a structured class setting, it's relatively safe to work your dog on this skill. You and your dog will develop the ability to cope with excitement, distraction, and stress. Therapy dogs and their handlers must be able to do this, because these conditions can occur at any moment and with no warning on a therapy dog visit. You and your dog need enough skill to handle the unexpected, with safety and courtesy, anytime. Some dogs will be able to learn with adequate practice, and some will not. You really don't know which type of dog you have until you do the training and see the results. Lots of bad decisions about dogs are made by trying to evaluate potential rather than evaluating training results. Temperament/Behavior/Personality Just as there are no perfect humans, there are no perfect dogs. A dog is born with genetic tendencies toward temperament. The experiences the dog has in life will shape those tendencies into behavior. Some would argue that the term "personality" is for people rather than dogs, but it's a helpful term when thinking about how the dog relates to people. The variability of temperament/personality in dogs is literally infinite. Some traits are disastrous for therapy dog work, but only if combined with certain other traits. For example, a dog who is highly reactive and also highly defensive will probably not make a good therapy dog. We need our reactive dogs to be low in defensiveness (a startled jump is not a big deal, but a startled attack is!) and our defensive dogs to be low in reactivity (defend only under extreme threat, not under conditions that would occur on a therapy dog visit). A dog with high levels of ANY temperament trait will require a more skilled handler and a higher level of training than will the easy-going dog. Therapy dogs who are genuinely interested in strangers have an advantage, but many good therapy dogs are somewhat reserved. The dog needs to feel comfortable accepting advances and touch from strangers, and not experience unhappiness or excessive stress from making therapy dog visits. The placid personality can be a nice fit with some of the people we visit. Therapy dogs must be able to work under adequate control at all times during visits. Exuberant dogs may take longer to train, and some handlers will not be equal to the tasks of training and handling the particular dogs they live with and love. There are dogs who will be several years old and need an incredible amount of training before they'll have enough self-control for therapy dog visits. When off duty, therapy dogs are regular dogs! They may jump on people, dig holes in the back yard, bark at squirrels, and steal the roast off the kitchen counter. In fact, one good reason for dogs to work as visiting therapy dogs rather than to live full-time in health-care institutions is to give them the time they need every day to BE dogs. Many a great therapy dog is a scamp at home. With good handling, the dog knows the difference between working and being off-duty-and so does the handler. Testing Even a skilled and experienced therapy dog handler can be blind to the faults of his or her own dog. All handler/dog teams need to go through testing before being registered for therapy dog work. This is a vital safeguard that protects the dog and handler as much as it protects others. If you know in your heart that your dog is not suited for therapy dog work, don't let the fact that the dog has passed a test make you think your instincts must be wrong. A test is only a few moments in time. Pay attention to what your instincts about your dog are telling you. You know your dog better than the person giving the test can know the dog. Protect your dog by waiting to begin therapy dog visits until you are really sure you and your dog are ready. If you have further questions about getting involved in therapy dog work with your dog, feel free to contact me at KDiamondD@aol.com.
My cocker, Maye and I have been doing therapy work for about 3 years now. We have only been able to go to nursing homes and assisted living. Our group "Caring Paws" has been working with the local hospital and it seems they are ready to let us come for visits. We all just have to have our TB test. This is where i really wanted to work, with the children. Maye loves doing this, she is very gentle with the elderly, even though they love pulling on her long ears. She just lets them do it and then gives them a big kiss. It's amazing how they remember the pet by name, but truly don't remember the handler as much. It is very rewarding work. I will be retiring in December, so this will give Maye and I more time to spend visiting different facilities. Maye got her CGC when she was 10 months old and then at 18 months she got her TDI. Our group has gotten very large here in our town, but we also do work with the main TDI in Richmond, they are called the "Spiritkeepers" http://dogster.com/pet_page.php?i=41344&j=t&PHPSESSID=a82b7f03dcf2ebb8d6d8b652b842528c
i have certified both my dogs for therapy dog work. thunder, however, i never registered because i know he doesn't have the right personality even though he passed with flying colors. scout is awesome with children so that is where we will concentrate our visits, with kids. now that my son is back in school i will have 2 days a week that i can go visit kids with her.