Is Your Pooch Therapy Dog Material?
Wondering what it takes for a regular dog to become a therapy dog?
Although there is training involved, much of it has to do with a dog’s personality and how willing he is to spend time around strangers in new environments. Here are some tips to help you decide if your dog has what it takes to be a canine therapist.
Don’t Get Fixated on Breed
While it’s true that some breeds might be more suited to becoming therapy dogs, any dog with the right temperament and personality can do it. “There are some breeds, though, that are generally not as well suited for this kind of work because the tasks they traditionally did tend to make them wary of strangers,” says Irith Bloom, a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Knowledge & Skills Assessed (CPDT-KSA). “These include some northern breeds, as well as some livestock guardian breeds.”
Mixed breeds—including dogs taken from shelters—are just as well or better suited for the job as purebreds, as long as the temperament fits. While dogs aren’t necessarily born with the perfect temperament for therapy work, it will develop soon enough for you to make a decision. “There’s always a possibility that a dog who is a shy seven-week-old puppy could become a great candidate for therapy work,” says Bloom. “But if a puppy is fearful of new people or situations at the age of 3.5 or four months, though, that puppy may not be the best candidate, since by that age, the dog’s primary socialization window is just about closed,”
Dogs who are calm and friendly as young adults (one to three years of age) are usually the best candidates for the job, according to Bloom. “If a dog is not calm and friendly to strangers as a young adult, it’s unlikely that the dog will ever learn to love meeting new people,” says Bloom. “The goal with therapy dogs is for both the dog and the people to enjoy the encounter, so it’s not fair to force a dog who is not actually happy to meet strangers into that line of work.”
This last part is important, because some dogs might tolerate being touched by strangers even if they don’t really like it—either because you’re there and they want to please you or because they’re well behaved. However, Bloom recommends paying attention to body language: if your dog seems stressed by the situation, don’t force them. “It’s not fair to force them into therapy work just because they are too polite to growl or move away,” says Bloom.
According to Bloom, a great therapy dog meets three basic requirements:
- He’s friendly, sociable and outgoing. He naturally walks up to strangers to make friends with them.
- He’s calm and well-mannered, and has great self-control. While he is outgoing and wants to meet new people, he will remain calm while greeting them, rather than running toward them, jumping up, or sticking his nose into the person without being invited to do so.
- He can handle whatever happens around him. He does not startle at new sights, sounds or situations and has no phobias or sensitivities (e.g. sound sensitivity).
If that seems like a tall order, it’s because it is. “The bottom line is that most dogs are not well-suited for therapy work,” says Bloom. “If a dog is not fundamentally calm and friendly, or if he does not actively enjoy being handled by strangers, he’s not the right dog for the task.”
Good Therapy Dogs Like People
Your dog shouldn’t necessarily like crowds or large groups of noisy people—but he should definitely like meeting new people and be interested in approaching them or trying to say hi.
Dogs who are people lovers will stay near a stranger even if they’re not being pet and will approach somebody new without being encouraged or forced to do so. Your dog should also “remain relaxed and appear happy (smiles, relaxed muscles, gentle tail wagging) while interacting with new people,” says Bloom
Before your dog could even be considered for a therapy training program, he’ll be expected to know basic cues, including: Sit, Down, Stay, Leave It, Drop It, Heel, Come.
Each organization has a number of requirements to certify a dog. For example, your dog should be able to remain calm in unusual situations—for example, around the movement and sounds of hospitals, beds moving, machines beeping and even people around using canes, walkers, or wheelchairs. “Dogs should also be able to remain focused on his or handler and respond to cues while walking past other dogs, since there might be more than one therapy dog in a facility,” says Bloom.