Therapy Dog Training Guide

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Understanding Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are specially trained canines that provide comfort and affection to people in various settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and disaster areas. Unlike service dogs that assist individuals with disabilities or emotional support animals that require a prescription, therapy dogs have a unique role in interacting positively with people who may be experiencing stress, loneliness, or emotional troubles.

Therapy dogs come in all shapes, sizes, and breeds, with no strict requirements. The most crucial characteristic is a friendly, patient temperament. These dogs must enjoy being petted, hugged, and handled by multiple people and should be comfortable around various sounds, sights, and smells.

Training is essential for therapy dogs, often starting with the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test, which covers basic obedience and socialization. Some dogs might undergo more specialized therapy-specific tests. Handlers, who accompany the dogs during visits, also play a significant role in engaging with the people they visit.

Joining therapy dog organizations can provide additional training resources and help with the certification process required to officially recognize a dog as a therapy dog. Certification involves a temperament assessment, basic obedience training, and registration with a reputable organization.

Therapy work is rewarding for both the dog and the handler. These dogs tend to have higher levels of endorphins and oxytocin because they enjoy their work, while their visits can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and bring smiles to the faces of those they meet.1

Requirements and Qualities of Therapy Dogs

A successful therapy dog must have a naturally calm and friendly temperament, genuinely enjoying interactions with new people and remaining composed in various environments. Obedience is another critical factor, with therapy dogs needing to be well-trained in basic commands and responsive to their handlers. The AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certification is a strong indicator of a dog's obedience skills.

Social behavior plays a major role in determining if a dog is therapy-ready. The dog must be comfortable with various sounds, smells, and sights commonly found in hospitals or schools. Adaptability and the ability to handle new experiences without fear or stress are essential. Signs of a promising therapy dog include:

  • Being unphased by loud noises
  • Adapting to new environments
  • Enjoying being the center of attention

However, even the friendliest dogs can exhibit signs of stress when overwhelmed, such as excessive panting, drooling, or the urge to retreat. These behaviors indicate that the dog might not be entirely comfortable with the situation.

Therapy dogs must also be healthy and well-groomed, with regular veterinary check-ups and good hygiene being non-negotiable, given that they will be touched by many hands.

Evaluating a dog's suitability for therapy work involves observation and understanding the dog's preferences. If a dog seems happiest lounging at home and is hesitant around new people, therapy work might not be the best fit. However, if a dog is a social butterfly and thrives on human interaction, it might have the potential to be a therapy dog.

Handlers must also be ready to guide interactions and engage with the people they visit, making therapy work a rewarding experience for both the dog and the handler.

Training and Certification Process

Training and certifying a therapy dog involves several essential steps, starting with laying a solid foundation of basic obedience. This includes teaching commands like "sit," "stay," "come," "leave it," and walking on a loose leash. Consistency and positive reinforcement through rewards are key in this process.

The next step is achieving the American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certification, which evaluates a dog's manners and ability to follow commands in various settings. The CGC test comprises 10 items, assessing the dog's ability to:

  1. Accept friendly strangers
  2. Sit politely for petting
  3. Walk through a crowd
  4. React appropriately to distractions
  5. And more

After obtaining the CGC certification, the focus shifts to therapy-specific training, which includes behaviors like remaining calm during petting sessions, staying composed around medical equipment or children, and understanding cues for taking breaks when needed. Enrolling in a therapy dog class that culminates in an evaluation mimicking real-world therapy situations can be beneficial.

To become certified, the dog and handler must undergo evaluations with therapy dog organizations, testing their ability to handle various scenarios and interactions typical in therapy work. These evaluations assess the dog's temperament, obedience, and ability to stay calm in different settings, as well as the handler's ability to manage and guide the dog effectively.

Key evaluations may involve working with different populations, simulated therapy visits, and assessing handler requirements. Upon successfully passing these assessments, the dog can be registered with a national therapy dog organization by submitting certification documents and proof of passing the evaluations.

Continuous reinforcement of training and regular participation in community events or additional classes help maintain a therapy dog's skills and preparedness for their important work. Engaging in therapy dog work is a fulfilling way to bond with a pet while positively impacting the community.

Benefits of Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs bring a wealth of emotional and physical benefits to the individuals they interact with. For those dealing with stress, anxiety, or grief, a therapy dog's presence can be incredibly soothing, as petting a dog has been scientifically proven to reduce stress hormones and promote a sense of calm.2 In hospital settings, therapy dogs create breaks in the monotony and pain, making the recovery process more bearable.

Moreover, engagement with therapy dogs has been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rates, reducing the physiological markers of stress.3 This can be especially beneficial for patients dealing with chronic pain or in the process of healing, contributing to overall health improvements and making the road to recovery smoother.

Therapy dogs themselves also benefit from their work, often showing higher levels of endorphins and oxytocin. The consistent contact with people can make their days more interesting and enriching, contributing to their mental and emotional well-being.

In schools, therapy dogs can aid in educational programs, helping children improve their reading skills and providing emotional support. These moments can transform reading from a challenging task to an enjoyable activity, encouraging literacy and boosting confidence. Similarly, in pediatric hospitals, therapy dogs help alleviate the fears of young patients, making medical environments less intimidating.

Furthermore, therapy dog work strengthens the bond between the dog and its handler, fostering a deeper connection and enhancing mutual trust and loyalty. Handlers often find themselves learning as much from their canine companions as they teach them, creating a unique dynamic where both parties grow together.

The benefits of therapy dogs stretch far and wide, offering valuable emotional support and tangible health improvements to the individuals they visit. For the dogs, the work is equally rewarding, keeping them happy, active, and mentally stimulated. Engaging in therapy dog work is truly a win-win situation, fostering joy, health, and connection everywhere these four-legged healers go.

  1. Marcus DA. The science behind animal-assisted therapy. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2013;17(4):322.
  2. Beetz A, Uvnäs-Moberg K, Julius H, Kotrschal K. Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin. Front Psychol. 2012;3:234.
  3. Levine GN, Allen K, Braun LT, et al. Pet ownership and cardiovascular risk: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2013;127(23):2353-2363.

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