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Therapy Dog Q&A

Dear Jan,

I really enjoyed the article about you and your new puppy. I have been taking Flurry to visit my mother-in-law in a local nursing home. She has been really well behaved and seems to be enjoying it (both Mom and the dog). I took a look at the Therapy Dogs website, but I am still a little confused as to how much training my dog needs to do this kind of "work". She is a family pet, a Portugese Water Dog. She has had 2 obedience classes, a clicker training class, and a beginning agility class. Since she is much more agile than I, the therapy work sounds interesting. The test on the site seems to be almost like the Canine Good Citizen test that I think is a part of the AKC obedience program. Can you give me any advice on what she
needs to be able to do to be a successful therapy dog?


Dear Natalie, is the website for info on testers for TDInc in Southeastern Michigan. I opted for TDInc because testing was readily available. There is a common thread in the requirements for
the three therapy organizations: basic obedience and good behavior. Canine Good Citizenship covers the basics.

To be a successful therapy dog, in addition to basic good behavior, here are some characteristics which are needed:

  1. LOVE people -- therapy dogs meet lots and lots and lots of new people every visit. Successful therapy dogs don't JUST 'tolerate' this....they thrive on it. They love meeting people. They love being patted and touched. They have outgoing personalities. A dog who sits and 'tolerates' it may get burnout after a while. A dog who LOVES it will look forward to each visit.

  2. BE ABLE TO ADJUST TO NEW THINGS!!!!! Therapy dogs encounter new situations in almost every visit. They should not be timid or afraid of new things. There always seems to be some new 'medical thingy' in the hallway or a patient's room.

  3. REALLY BE FOCUSED ON THEIR HANDLER WHEN NECESSARY. There are patients who sometimes try to feed the dog or 'entice' the dog. There are people who have tried to offer Arielle their own food...once someone literally chased us in a wheelchair with crackers and cheese. I carry treats for Arielle and I explain that she is on a special diet......I rely on Arielle to take her cues from me when necessary. That includes following my lead if we have to get out of tight spaces...literally!!!! There have been times when we have been completely surrounded by people in wheelchairs. In an hour visit, we see between 50 and 100 people, sometimes as many as 20 at a time in a common area. It takes a confident dog to do this and one who knows that their human will be sure no one accidentally runs over them with a wheelchair. BTW, there is one fellow who is in a wheelchair and is constantly trying to get Arielle to 'climb' into his lap.....Arielle weighs over 100 pounds...She looks at him and then at me and she sits on the floor....

  4. HAVE A TEAM-MATE (that's you.....) WHO ENJOYS THIS WORK TOO. The 'magic' that the dogs do is very special but you are also part of the team. I keep a close eye on things especially in the Alzheimers ward, to be sure no one pulls Arielle's ears or is too rough without meaning to be.

To answer the 'what does she need to be able to do' question:

  • Walk on a loose leash around obstacles and on a variety of floor coverings

  • Sit and down with stays

  • Stand stay (great when people are in bed)

  • IGNORE other dogs

  • Leave it (dinner trays are sometimes left out on chairs.....)

  • Ride in an elevator

The rest just happens: people pat your dog and feel better.....and YOU feel better too because you know you are helping make the world a better place. I could talk about therapy dog work for hours....if
you have any more questions, please email me and I will try to help. If your dog wants to do this work and you decide to do it, you will have the most incredible experiences....

Best wishes,

Jan and Arielle (who says I should also mention that Arielle gets ice
cream at the Dairy Queen after every therapy visit....and your dog
might like this also as long as they are not lactose intolerant....)

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