Therapy Dog

getting started

by Tiffany Simpson-Terroux

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)

AAA

AAT

AAE

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 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.  My handsome dog-boy, Odin, is a retrieving machine, intense, and quite the trick performing dog; while my lovely dog-girl, Shelby, is gentle, relaxed, 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").

You and your dog’s preferences concerning types of AAI may change over time, for instance, you both may enjoy a particular activity for a while, but then you notice that your dog is becoming increasingly disinterested in the activity—it may be time to bring in a new team and for you and your dog to move on to something more positive and rewarding, for you both, and for the client(s) you are serving.

Be Your​ Dog's 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 must be sensitive to how your dog is feeling, and adjust accordingly to keep your dog in his/her best physical and mental frame of mind; regardless of what the job expectation is; meaning, if your dog is having a problem (feeling uncomfortable, feeling ill, etc.), then you may need to immediately remove your dog from the situation and then make other arrangements.  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 so that you notice variations from the norm.  Get to know your dog, better.  Observe your dog.  Keep a notepad nearby and start making notes about your own dog’s body language—get detailed, get very specific!  What are the elements of your dog’s body language when she is relaxed, anxious, excited, nervous, or confused?  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, and so on.  Begin by documenting only the language components rather than trying to interpret what you think s/he is feeling.  You’ll likely be surprised at all the details of language actually going on at any given moment.  If you really want to be your dog’s best advocate, then you must become familiar with his/her language.

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)

Do you speak dog?  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.  What is your dog telling you about this situation, this person, this place?  Largely, stress or fear signals in dogs include one or more of the following behaviors: 

  • 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

  • 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:  (Anderson 2012)

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.  For instance, registered therapy teams through Pet Partners are covered under a $2 million liability coverage policy, while they are conducting therapy animal visits on behalf of Pet Partners.  Some organizations offer more coverage, it depends on each unique organization.  Personally, I would not consider engaging in AAI without proper organization endorsement and insurance backing (in the event something were to go wrong, the liability could be entirely yours). 

Most organizations require that your dog at least pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen evaluation, while others also require a good standing in AAI and/or that you be registered with a national therapy dog organization, and then they may have other training requirements of their own.  For instance, require you to attend a specially-designed therapy dog handler class taught by an experienced handler or approved professional trainer.  Dogs are typically required to be at least one year of age, and handlers at least 18 years of age.

Businesses, retirement communities, libraries, and others will contact an AAI organization when looking for therapy dog services, and if they like the service, they may even contract with that organization exclusively.  Some medical facilities have their own in-house therapy dog teams; for instance, where a hospital manages its own teams, educating and evaluating candidates through contracted or hired staff.

 

Following are local therapy dog organizations that I am currently aware of:  (the below not listed in order of preference or endorsement, respectfully, and changes over time)

  • Alliance of Therapy Dogs

  • Animals 4 Therapy

  • Colorado Comfort Canines

  • CSU HABIC (Human-Animal Bond in Colorado)

  • Pet Partners

  • Professional Therapy Dogs of Colorado

  • Therapy Dogs Boulder County

  • and there are others…

I recommend that you do preliminary research online about the organization(s) that most interest you, then reach out to their coordinator or other volunteer(s) to learn more about requirements, opportunity variety and locations, scheduling, and overall mission.  Ask questions and decide for yourself if you think they are reasonably attentive, responsive to your questions, and in alignment with your expectations and goals.  Please select an organization for its integrity, however; rather than how easy it is to get evaluated and get started—you want to be proud of who you represent while in the field and among your peers, and you need an organization that will help support you in your efforts.  For your convenience, I have included information (website) links for the above list at the conclusion of this article.

a Therapy Dog candidate should/be:

  • healthy, pain-free, parasite-free, and current on vaccinations (especially against communicable diseases)

  • at least one year of age:

    • some dogs may not be ready until they are adults (for their breed) and may not be ready until about age three; if your dog is a rescue, I recommend living with and working with your dog for at least three months, or more, before seriously considering therapy work

  • gentle and demonstrate a desire to socialize with humans

  • calm-natured (rather than easily over-stimulated and/or having low-impulse control)

  • willingly seek affection, attention, petting from others, appears to enjoy the work

  • the dog moves freely, is not forced to visit

  • reliably obedience trained:

    • positive reinforcement-method training is preferred though over-dependency on treats should be avoided –your dog must be reliable and calm with or without food present

  • earn the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certificate.CGC is a class offered by many dog schools/trainers that offers intermediate-level obedience training within a distracting environment of objects, equipment, noises, other dogs and people simulating real-life situations

  • have no history of aggression or seriously injuring either people or other animals

  • stimulate and settle in short order

    • can quickly recover from a stimulated state and move into a calm and controlled state

  • good fear-startle recovery

    • can be presented with something unknown/sudden, then recover with handler guidance

  • take food politely-gently and leave-it

    • leave things alone automatically or when instructed to do so, dog is not over-stimulated by food to the point that s/he is unable to focus on work; rather, is more interested in food, overly pushy, etc.

  • proofed; well-socialized and training is generalized so that it is reliable; dog is tolerant and experienced at being approached in many different kinds of environments and touched in many kinds of ways (handling of feet, ears, tail, etc); is proficient at responding to cues in a variety of environments and distraction levels (prepare your dog for sudden noises, and visuals, things moving quickly and erratically, that could activate prey drive).

  • preferably neutral or friendly with other dogs, is not reactive toward other animals

  • well-groomed; clean (smells and looks clean)

    • hair is free from vision and mouth; breath is not offensive, drooling isn’t excessive; nails are trimmed and filed (so not to scratch human skin); free from costumes that interfere with dog’s movement, vision or hearing or prevent handler or visitor from being able to fully see how dog is feeling

  • no loose hanging metal pieces, no wire brushes or chain leashes or collars that clients could get cut on or caught in; dog wears a standard flat or rolled fabric or leather collar

  • No choke chains, nylon-slip chokes, pinch collars, or spray or electric collars

  • most organizations discourage or prohibit member therapy dogs from feeding on a “raw food” diet due to raw food-borne bacteria potential

 

the Therapy Dog Handler:

  • enjoys working with and helping people

  • is a good listener and follows instructions

  • yields to professional staff

  • is his/her dog’s best advocate

    • knows dog's limitations, fears, and anxieties, and how to manage them appropriately to keep dog balanced and feeling good at all times

  • is dependable; keeps commitments

  • presents well; communicates clearly and dresses in a respectful manner; hair is free from face enough so that handler can safely see peripherally

  • brings water, waste cleanup tools and any other necessities to appropriately support the animal

  • brings proof of dog’s vaccinations, identification and credentials

  • can explain the difference between a service dog and a therapy dog

  • took a class on therapy handler and therapy dog skills

  • provides safe transport for the animal

  • sets aside appropriate amount of time needed prior to visits for proper preparation

 

Typical Evaluation elements in a therapy dog test:

  • Appearance and Grooming

  • Meeting a Friendly Stranger

  • Walk on leash (no tight leash or force; evaluator will ask for handler to make changes in direction and come to a stop)

  • Walking through a crowd and equipment

  • Reaction/recovery from noise

  • Sit and Down on cue (no force)

  • Reaction to neutral dog

  • Physical exam

  • Friendly hug

  • Meeting a staggering (unstable) person

  • Crowded by several people at once

  • Taking food politely

  • Willingness to visit with people

 

Your evaluator will likely have one or more assistants helping them with the evaluation, providing distractions as prescribed by the test and serving as an additional observer.  Any act of aggression should be grounds for immediate dismissal from the test.  Demonstrations of fears and discomfort will be noted for future further development. 

In addition to training, some organizations offer a preliminary or pre-test to the official test.  These provide an excellent opportunity for you to get a feel for the real-test experience.  Following are website leads for currently known local AAI organizations:

Alliance of Therapy Dogs

https://www.therapydogs.com/alliance-therapy-dogs/

Animals 4 Therapy

http://www.animals4therapy.org/Volunteering.html

Colorado Comfort Canines

http://www.coloradocomfortcanines.org/

CSU’s HABIC (Human-Animal Bond in Colorado)  http://www.habic.chhs.colostate.edu/volunteer/volunteer.aspx

Pet Partners (f/k/a Delta Society)

https://petpartners.org/volunteer/volunteer-with-pet-partners/

Professional Therapy Dogs of Colorado

http://www.professionaltherapydogsofcolorado.com/

Therapy Dogs Boulder County

https://therapydogsbouldercounty.com/

 

 

Tiffany Simpson-Terroux, trainer at Terroux Dog Training, 15 years of experience in the class environment and in private instruction, certified as evaluator for the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program in 2006, graduated with honors from Regis University, BS Business Administration and Communication, and earned the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work Animals and Human Health (AHH) Certificate.  Tiffany has accumulated over 90 CEUs of ongoing professional dog training education credits through national professional dog training organizations.  Tiffany and her Flat-coated retriever, Shelby, a registered therapy team through Pet Partners and Animals 4 Therapy.  Tiffany has evaluated numerous therapy dog candidates for AAI organizations.  ​She is a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC).

 

________________________

Sources:

Aloff B. Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide — Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog. Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise Publishing; 2005.

American Kennel Club (AKC).  CGC Training & Test Items.  Retrieved from https://www.akc.org/products-services/training-programs/canine-good-citizen/training-testing/

Anderson, Eilleen (2012).  Does Your Dog REALLY Want to be Petted?  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cGDYI-s-cQ

Fine, A. (2015). Animal Assisted Activities, Animal Assisted Therapy, Animal Assisted Education. In Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy. (4th ed). Academic Press, CA. pp.74-75, 53-54, 195-203.

Pearson, J. (2016).  Animal Partners, The third course in the Animals and Human Health

Professional Development series.  University of Denver, Graduate School of Social Work

Please Don’t Pet Me [service dog] Campaign.  Differences between service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals.  Retrieved from http://pleasedontpetme.com/index.php

Raw Pet Foods and the AVMA's Policy: FAQ  https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/FAQs/Pages/Raw-Pet-Foods-and-the-AVMA-Policy-FAQ.aspx

University of Denver, Institute for Human-Animal Connection.  Retrieved from https://www.du.edu/humananimalconnection/programs-education/ahh

U.S. Department of Justice, ADA Requirements; https://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm

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