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Therapy dog: getting started

Updated: Aug 23, 2020

Are you interested in becoming a therapy dog team and training your dog to become a therapy dog? This article is for you!

Welcome, and thank you for considering how you and your dog could offer comfort and support to other humans within your community through volunteer opportunities in Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI).  AAI is a union of skilled handler and animal working together, often alongside other professionals, for the purpose of facilitating learning, enhanced therapeutic intervention (physical, cognitive, emotional), and/or increasing positive interaction and educational goals for humans. 

Having an understanding of what kind of therapy dog work you are interested in will help you communicate with organizers and potential clients as well as give you a head-start on aligning yourself (and your dog) for a successful and rewarding experience.  Following are specific categories of AAI for your consideration:

Animal Assisted Activity a therapy dog team activity that provides motivational, educational, or recreational experience with the intended consequence of enhancing quality of life (examples; reading with kids at the library, employee motivation and a place of business, visiting university students studying for finals) Animal Assisted Therapy a documented therapeutic intervention directed by health and human services providers that is goal-oriented; therapy dog team working alongside a clinician, social worker, or other practitioner (example; working alongside an occupational therapist) Animal Assisted Education a planned and structured intervention directed by a general education or special education professional where the focus of activities is on academic goals, cognitive function with student progress being both measured and documented.  (Fine 2015)

Therapy Team vs. Therapy Dog. While helping enrich the lives of others, you and your dog will work together as a team.  I have been volunteering as a therapy team for several years with my Flat-coated retriever, Shelby.  She looks forward to the beginning of each engagement, as evidenced by the happy dance she does when I pull out her vest and bag—and that’s an important observation—that she is eager to begin the activity and enjoys the duration of it; if she didn't enjoy it, then I simply wouldn't put her through it.  And of course, you should enjoy it, too!  If you're considering getting yourself and your dog involved in therapy work, then I invite you to no longer think of your dog as a “therapy dog;” rather, you will become a “therapy team.”  You can’t do the job well without the other; it's both you and your dog, and it is a cooperative relationship.

Would MY DOG make a good therapy dog?

Great question; I'm glad you're asking!  While we can make the decision for ourselves whether we want to get involved in therapy work, we must remain mindful that is we who are making the decision for the dog.  How will your dog feel about this? 

A quality therapy dog is one in many;

not every dog can be or will want to be (enjoy being) a therapy dog. 

Your dog is wonderful and talented in his or her own right; whether or not she's appropriate for AAI does not make her any more or less special than the next dog who is not particularly suited for it.  For instance, my handsome dog-boy, Odin, is a retrieving machine, intense, and quite the trick performing dog; while my lovely dog-girl, Shelby, is gentle, laid-back, and actively seeks affection and touch.  Both dogs are the same breed and raised in the same household, yet they have very different personalities and talents.

Generally, the primary attributes of a therapy dog include a naturally gentle, calm-mannered temperament, well-socialized and reliably trained, and enjoys and freely engages close-contact visiting with both new and known people.  Later in this article I have assembled a more comprehensive, detailed list of attributes and skills expected from a qualified therapy dog candidate, and from the handler (under headings,"a Therapy Dog candidate should/be" and "the therapy dog Handler").

Your​ Dog's Best Advocate

You and your dog should have a quality human-animal bond to be your absolute best in the therapy environment.  You must have a mutual relationship of trust and respect.  Communication with one another is at an intimate level where your dog looks to you for guidance and you are reliably your dog’s best advocate.  It is apparent to others that you have sufficient control without having to get physical with your dog, never using force or corrections.  You are sensitive to how your dog is feeling and adjust accordingly to keep your dog in his/her best physical and mental frame of mind.  You consistently demonstrate to your dog, whether on assignment or not, that you have his or her back so that your dog feels comfortable and confident in your care, at all times.  

What’s your dog’s baseline?  Familiarize yourself with your dog’s baseline behaviors (how she behaves in normal, no-stress situations) so that you notice variations from the norm.  Get to know your dog, better.   

Do you speak dog?  If you really want to be your dog’s best advocate, then you must become familiar with his/her language.  What are the elements of your dog’s body language when she is relaxed, anxious, excited, nervous, or confused?  Specifically, what position are the ears in, what does her face look like, her eyes, her mouth shape, what is the tail doing, what is her body posture, what is her breathing like, what are her feet doing?  Document what you observe rather than trying to interpret what you think s/he is feeling.  I suspect you'll be surprised at all the details of language actually being communicated at any given moment—once you start reading and noticing your dog's language, you'll be amazed at how much she's been communicating all along.

Dog-reading skills are handy to have though in AAI you’ll need to be especially attuned to how your dog is feeling so that s/he remains balanced, healthy and in his/her optimum frame of mind for enjoyment and safety for all involved. 

Common stress or fear indicators in dogs may include one or more of the following: 

  • moving away, seeking escape or refuge

  • scratching at themselves

  • sniffing the ground

  • turning head away when meeting someone

  • shaking off of coat (a stress release)

  • tongue flicking (nose and lip licking)

  • whale eye (white of eyes visible)

  • panting, vocalizing

  • urination, rolling on back

  • body stiffening (freezing)

  • salivation, sweating paw-pads

  • lowering of body, tail, ears

  • shifting paws and paw lifting

  • inability to relax

  • avoidance

  • decreased appetite, lost interest in food

Some of the above warning behaviors can also be relatively “normal” behaviors in other situations; therefore, appropriate context must be applied You know your dog better than anyone else!  A dog not feeling well or in pain is more likely to revert to innate, possibly aggressive behaviors and/or be pushed over threshold more easily than a healthy dog who is feeling good.  Signs of not feeling well may include sudden touch-sensitivity, change in mood and/or movement, unfamiliar behavior, change in drinking and eating habits, loose bowels or constipation, urination and vomiting.  Be especially astute of behavior impacts due to pain, recent medications and treatments. 

Does your dog like to be petted?

Perhaps your dog enjoys being petted only by familiar people, or being petted in a certain way?  Can you observe a dog being petted and interpret how that dog may be feeling about it?  How about your own dog?  Watch this short, educational video demonstrating typical behaviors of a dog who does not enjoy petting, versus behavior typical of a dog who does enjoy petting -- the "consent" test.  (Anderson 2012)

Setting up for and maintaining success. Keep rules for your animal clear and consistent, and do not allow your therapy dog to practice unwanted behaviors at home as they will be likely to do them in while in AAIs.  Dog parks are generally not recommended as they promote a higher likelihood of disease exposure and transmission; inappropriate interactions; injury to dogs and people; and a tendency for your dog to become accustomed to ignoring verbal commands.  (J. Pearson, 2016)

What kind of training will my dog need?

Basic manners and obedience skills most called upon

(skills are reliable and accomplished without use of physical force from handler):

  • walking on lead (leash is not pulled tight, dog follows along with handler through starts, stops and direction changes)

  • sit and down

  • sit and down stay

  • come when called

  • taking food from hand with permission and politely

  • can perform skills amidst distractions like human activity, another animal, or food odor

  • with support, can recover from most stimulation and startle

Tactile desensitization, gradually, positively building touch tolerance into comfort. Training must begin with handler building and establishing trust with animal.  Training is not rushed or forced otherwise handler risks creating increased sensitivity.  Pre-consultation with a professional is advised before beginning a tactile desensitization program, especially if working with a recently acquired (re-homed, rescued or sheltered) animal.  Ultimately, the therapy dog should be tolerant (to comfortable) with the following possible experiences though it is expected that the handler will support and protect the animal through the exposure:

  • being touched, petted and examined, most to all parts of the body

  • being in close proximity to a newly introduced person, on the same level

  • accidental coat pulls (hair grasps)

  • sudden reaches and touches, a reach from over the head

  • restraint (being held or leaned upon)

  • hugs

Environmental considerations.  Be mindful of your dog's comfort before committing to a therapy opportunity--will the environment be too hot, too cold, too noisy, or require your dog to do something she hasn't been introduced to?  

  • stairs

  • textures - walking onto carpet, exercise mats, tile, linoleum, rubber floor, concrete, grass, etc.

  • automatic and sliding door entry/exits

  • elevators

  • escalators (Caution!  If you believe your dog will be required to use an escalator then she'll need careful introductions to it; please don't try this on your own, consult with an experienced professional.)

  • public transportation

  • sights (lighting, hats, beards, umbrellas, medical equipment, uniforms, etc.)

  • sounds (vehicles motoring, lawn equipment, janitorial equipment, bells, alarms, other animal, etc.)

  • odors (other animals, food, aroma therapies)

​Has adequate break time been scheduled?  Do you know where to take your dog for potty breaks?  Where can you go in the event your dog becomes over-aroused and needs a calm place to recover? ​​ Tricks and other useful skills training.  A client may delight and engage more readily with an animal who can perform a trick for them like, "high five."  Tricks strengthen the communicative bond between you and your dog as well as broaden the scope of therapy skill you and your dog can offer. 

What’s the difference between a Therapy Dog and a Service Dog?

Which dog is working as a therapy dog?

When you share with people outside of the AAI community that your dog is a therapy dog, be prepared to answer the next question, “What’s the difference between a therapy dog and a service dog?”  A Service dog is an assistance dog that has been specially trained to help someone who has a disability, performing a specific service for its human; the dog remains (lives) with that human providing that service.  The Therapy dog visits humans with needs, but remains (lives) with his/her handler—the therapy team stays together.  Therapy team responsibilities are to provide psychological or physiological therapy to others.  A service dog is permitted by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to accompany their human into businesses and other public gathering places while the therapy dog is NOT; rather, only permitted when given permission to do so by appropriate authority and/or business management.  A service dog may wear a vest with the wording “please do not pet,” indicating that the dog is actively working, while a therapy dog is available for and encourages petting, providing comfort while working.  [The photo on the right portrays a dog engaged in therapy work.]

AAI Organizations

There are now a few Colorado-based AAI organizations, and then there are also national level organizations.  Local organizations primarily provide support to their therapy teams through training, evaluation, and acting as a communication hub for therapy requests, and most are non-profit.  Perhaps their biggest value to you, other than affiliating yourself with a highly respected organization, is that they provide their approved therapy teams with insurance coverage