Almost daily, our office receives calls from people asking about our therapy dog program and telling us that they have a dog who “just loves everyone.” We welcome these calls because asking for more information is the first step to getting your dog officially therapy certified.
Three Myths About Therapy Dogs
First – let’s dispel 3 common myths:
1) My dog is a pitbull – he will not qualify to be a therapy dog. False – breed has nothing to do with whether a dog will make a good therapy pet. We have all shapes, sizes and breeds involved with our program from doberman pinzers and pit bulls down to yorkies. If your dog has the right temperament and you are willing to put in the time to train them properly and go through testing, your dog can be a success.
2) My collie is friendly and seems to love everyone so she will automatically make a good therapy dog. Great start, but not the whole story. A therapy dog undergoes basic obedience training, then is trained and tested on a wide variety of attributes. Can they maintain composure in different environments like noisy hospitals, walking among wheelchairs and walkers, friendly with children and seniors, friendly with other dogs in close quarters, able to walk nicely on a leash and able to follow the command “leave it” when tempted by food on the floor?
3) I’d like to get my dog certified, but the only places they go are nursing homes or hospitals and I don’t like those places that much. No worries, now that therapy dogs have been proven to reduce stress and provide positive health benefits there are many opportunities and places you can volunteer and find an opportunity that suits you and your dog.
What Makes a Good Therapy Dog?
So – what characteristics do make for a good therapy dog? It’s really a combination of the dogs natural temperament and you, their owner willing to devote time training them and getting them ready to pass the certification test which allows them to make visits. One without the other will not lead to success. You must think of you and your dog as a true team and the relationship and trust you develop is extremely important. Definitely do not count out your rescue dog who may have came from bad circumstances! With the right training and guidance, they often make the most wonderful, loving therapy dogs.
Temperaments of successful therapy dogs include being friendly without a lot of coaxing to a wide variety of people, not being overly protective of his or her owner when a stranger approaches, able to be comfortable in many different situations and in the midst of different stimuli (noisy, crowded, other dogs present, etc.) and able to learn and follow new commands. Your dog must be able to walk by your side on a leash with pulling or straining. One of the most challenging for many dog owners is having your dog walk by a very tempting morsel of food on the ground like a hamburger or piece of pizza and not try to eat it, but respond to the “leave it” command. Don’t worry, this takes a lot of practice but can be done!
If you think your dog is a good candidate, I recommend taking them to basic obedience classes early in life. Many dog training schools offer Puppy Manner classes which will help with the sit, stay, dog socialization skills and the “no jumping” part of training. Therapy dog classes which lead to certification generally begin when your dog is over one year old, but many dogs at this age are just too rambunctious, so wait until your dog is a bit calmer and it won’t be stressful to them.
Malke and Frank
My own dog Malke became certified when I started the nonprofit therapy dog program Caregiver Canines® in 2009. We made weekly home visits to Frank who had dementia and his wife Jean who was his caregiver. Jean told me that Frank loved dogs his whole life, but now she just didn’t have the time or energy to care for one. She also told me Frank was non-verbal now and she couldn’t get him to leave the house without a struggle.
When Malke and I went to visit the first time, we saw Frank’s face light up. He immediately bent down, began to pet Malke and he whispered “my baby, my baby.” When I looked up, I saw tears streaming down Jean’s face. She told me it was the first time she heard Franks voice in over a year and she never realized how much she missed it.
During that visit, Frank was also amenable to going for a walk with Malke, so the three of us put on our coats and walked around the block. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more gratified or proud of Malke for making such a wonderful difference in people’s lives.
To anyone interested in getting their dog therapy certified, I whole heartedly encourage it. It is a wonderful way to share your pride and joy with others less fortunate. It does take time and dedication, but it is also an incredibly rewarding volunteer opportunity and will greatly enhance the bond between you.
I wish you the very best of luck on this fun journey and on behalf of everyone you visit, a heartfelt thank you!
-Lynette Whiteman, MS
To learn more about Caregiver Canines®, visit www.caregivercanines.org and follow us on facebook www.facebook.com/caregivercanines. If you are interested in starting your own chapter, please email [email protected]