Cuddles Are The Best Medicine: Training Your Therapy Dog

Thinking your dog could brighten someone’s day? Give yourself a pat on the back, you do-gooder you. Therapy dogs come in all shapes and sizes. That being said, it’s important to realize that some dogs’ talents are better suited for other tasks. Not to worry: we’ll get you sorted. Here’s what you need to think about before getting your dog deep into therapy dog training and certification, plus how to get started.

What is a therapy dog?

Chances are that you’re looking to train a therapeutic visitation dog. That’s a household pet taken by their handler (usually the owner) to visit hospitals, nursing homes, detention facilities, rehabilitation facilities and the like. These pups bring joy to those who miss their pets because they’re away due to mental or physical illness, or maybe even court order. The end goal? Motivate these folks to do what they need to do to get home and see their own pet.

Sweet disposition? Check!

Potential to become a therapy dog straddles nature and nurture. Therapy dogs must be born with an immovably calm foundation, patience, a desire to please and an immense love for a variety of people. This cornerstone is non-negotiable. It serves as the most important building block from which basic obedience and socialization is grown. So take note of how your dog does around new sounds, smells, sights and people.

And please, no puppies. Most schools will not accept dogs under a year old. You’ll want your dog to really grow into their personality before being put through the rigamarole of therapy dog training.

Decide if you’ll be their handler.

In the same sense that not every dog will make a stand-up therapy dog, not every human should be a handler. Of course, it would be lovely if you could indeed play handler to your pet, so here’s the trick. You’ve got to put in the hours because the dog will look to you for guidance. No matter how successful they are in classes, if you aren’t pulling your own weight it’s all for naught. As a handler, you’ve got to have a handle (get it?) on your dog’s comfort levels—their strengths and their weaknesses.

Don’t try to force your dog to be good at what the dog next door excels at. Observe where their talents lie, then hone and praise them. That makes for an honest team and ensures that your dog will enjoy their therapy days, wherever they may lead.

On your journey toward handler and/or therapy dog, don’t be afraid to find a mentor. No single person knows it all. That’s what classes are for, and why even teachers never stop learning. Being a handler takes a lot of work, but the reward is a unique bond that cannot be described.

Do your homework.

While not all therapy dog certification organizations require that your dog be a Canine Good Citizen (CGC), it’s a great way to test the waters. Your pet will be vetted through and through. They will learn the basics when it comes to distractions, equipment, new environments and surprising situations. No, it’s not a guarantee that they will pass therapy dog testing, but it’s one of the best tools that can get you closer to completion. Let’s call it the PSATs of therapy dog testing.

Bonus! Some pet insurance companies will you give a discount for a CGC pup. And the American Dog Breeders Association offers a similar Safe Dog Test if you’d rather go through them.

Game time.

Therapy dog training and tests are meant to simulate what a dog might encounter in a therapy facility.

Here are some resources that will help get your dog tested:

And here’s an example of what you can expect on test day. Tests may include:

  • Getting around people
  • Sitting and staying in a group of dogs
  • Refraining from taking food until given a command
  • Reaction to children

Any dog who soils themselves during testing is immediately disqualified, so get that house training perfected to a T.

Now make the world a happier place.

Therapy dogs can de-stress, lower blood pressure and increase the production of oxytocin. They can wag their way through hospitals, libraries, schools nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, community groups and even scouting troops. There can never be enough therapy dogs in the world.

Go forth and snuggle.

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The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.

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