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  • Christine Geschwill, CPDT-KA

I Want to Make My Dog A Therapy Dog

I get a lot of different requests from clients, but one of the most common is about Therapy Dog training. Often some people don't know what they're asking for and while they say "Therapy Dog" they mean, "Service Dog". So, making sure you know the difference between therapy dogs and service dogs is pretty important. I could go on, ad infinitum, about the differences between therapy dogs and service dogs, but, to keep it simple, let's just put it this way. Therapy Dogs do not have rights of public access. That means, you can't just take them with you anywhere. Therapy Dogs only have the right to attend places where they have been invited. I can't just walk into any old hospital with my Therapy Dog. If the hospital hasn't requested a dog to serve their patients, I can't just get up today and decide I want to visit patients at that hospital, school, nursing home, wherever, even though she is a Therapy Dog. She still requires an invitation. Service Dogs, on the other hand, do have the right to public access. But that doesn't just mean I can declare my dog a Service Dog and head out to the grocery store. I have to have a recognized disability for my dog to qualify as a Service Dog AND, and this is where it gets important, my dog has to perform tasks (multiple) that make it possible for me to function; tasks that without the dog's assistance, would make it difficult, or even impossible, for me to get through my day. If my dog isn't TASK trained, then regardless of my legitimate disability, my dog is NOT a service dog. Just making me feel better does not qualify. They also have to have public access training. Service Dogs should be, for all intents and purposes, invisible to the public; i.e. they shouldn't call attention to themselves. They shouldn't interact with people other than their handler, ever, and should be indifferent to other dogs, cats, squirrels, etc. they meet in the course of their working day. They have to walk quietly at their handler's side; lay quietly and silently under tables. They can't bark, pee anywhere they want, or solicit attention from others. They can't ride in shopping carts.

Now that we've got that covered, let's talk about Therapy Dogs. A Therapy Dog has to have a significant amount of training. So the first step is either getting that training for your dog, or assessing where your dog is in the training process to determine if they are ready, either behaviorally or temperamentally, for therapy work.

Many people wish to do therapy work with their dog, despite the fact that their dog is unsuitable for therapy work. So you do need to be honest with yourself about your reasons for wanting to do therapy work and whether or not your dog shares that desire.

I will give you a personal example. While my dog Grace thrives on her therapy work, I have another dog, Clover, whom I have chosen not to do therapy work with. She is perfectly happy meeting new people, and has the requisite training skills, but does get very overwhelmed in chaotic environments. Rarely do therapy visits happen in a home environment, or a quiet location. One of Grace's regular assignments is at a school for children with behavioral issues. Being surrounded by 5-6 or more students at a time, as often happens, all trying to get hands on her at the same time would send Clover into a panic. And if any of those students started yelling or throwing things, as often happens, Clover would be terrified. If each of those students approached her quietly and respectfully, one or even two at a time, in a perfect situation, she would be great. But things often are less than perfect in therapy environments. And we do not always have control of the situation. For those reasons, despite the fact that I believe she would be an excellent therapy dog in some situations, knowing that there is always the chance that something could go wrong that could possibly cause her a significant amount of stress, and even emotional harm, I have chosen not to pursue therapy work with her. You have to make sure you are making the right decision and advocating for your dog.

Let's assume that your dog shares your desire to do therapy work, then it is time to start training or assessing your dog's readiness. A good rule of thumb for assessing your dog's readiness is the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen Test. Most Therapy Dog organizations use the CGC Test as a prerequisite for their own testing. If a dog hasn't mastered the CGC skills, they are unlikely to pass a therapy dog evaluation. The Canine Good Citizen Test consists of 10 test items that test your dog's basic manners and your ability as a handler to manage your dog in novel environments. The test items are:

  1. Accepting a friendly stranger

  2. Sitting politely for petting

  3. Appearance and grooming

  4. Walking on a loose lead

  5. Walking through a crowd

  6. Sit, Down and Stay on command

  7. Coming when called

  8. Reaction to another dog

  9. Reaction to distractions

  10. Supervised separation

​Here is a link to the CGC Test items and their descriptions.

Your dog should be able to perform these tasks away from home, in many different environments, comfortably and happily, and without treats. Aside from these specific tasks, if your dog jumps up on people, that is something you need to work on. Therapy Dogs should not jump up on people. Many of the clients we meet in a therapy environment are afraid of, or allergic, to dogs. Having a dog, no matter how friendly or well intentioned, jump up on that person, would not be therapeutic for that person. So having a dog who has a certain level of self-control is necessary. In that same vein, dogs who greet people too enthusiastically, before asking permission is equally problematic. These are trainable behaviors. Dogs who are big lickers are also not the best candidates for therapy work. Many people, even those who like dogs, don’t like to be licked. So again, this is something that would need to be trained.

Other skills, like leaving food or other things found on the floor or offered to them by clients they may be visiting, being able to walk through narrow doorways politely, elevator etiquette, navigating stairways safely, amongst others, are all skills you and your dog need to have before they are ready for therapy work. As we mentioned earlier, having a stable temperament, and being able to work in close proximity to other dogs, as sometimes is needed, are all things to take into consideration.

Check out my video on Take Paws for more on Therapy Dog Training.

If you believe your dog is ready for therapy work, there are several excellent therapy organizations in our area who would be thrilled to add you to their team. If you think your dog is not yet ready for therapy work, or are unsure of whether or not your dog is ready for therapy work, or for more information, please contact us at 954-326-0796. We would be happy to help.


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