As you look at what trainers have to offer, consider the value you get from going to a trainer who is experienced with therapy dog work (animal-assisted interactions, or AAI). Would you take driving lessons from someone who does not drive? The same principle applies: what is the benefit of getting therapy dog training from someone who has never done therapy dog work? Ann has been providing animal-assisted interactions in many different environments since 1987, both as a volunteer and as paid staff. Ann has education in dog training theory and principles, has worked as a professional dog trainer since 2001, and is a member in good standing with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. As a result, Ann has the knowledge, experience, and skill to help you and your dog learn what you need to know to be successful in therapy dog work.
It is important to know that taking a therapy dog training class is not required for animals and handlers to become therapy teams. That being said, however, it is difficult for most people on their own to set up training sessions that simulate visiting conditions. As a result, some people choose to go to a therapy dog training class or obtain private lessons in order to learn and practice skills needed to help them be successful in visiting (and to pass the behavioral test). Further, it could be a conflict of interest for Ann to both train and evaluate you. As a result, Ann refers you to an independent evaluator for behavioral testing.
Contact us for more information about private lessons or a therapy dog class.
What Makes a Good Therapy Dog?
As Patricia McConnell says, “Not all people would make a good therapist; not all dogs make a good therapy dog.” People often ask me whether or not their dog or puppy would make a good visiting therapy dog. In the first place, it is important to emphasize that the dog – or other animal – is only one part of the team. The handler is often more important than the animal in setting the team up for success! That being said, however, here are some general things to look for in an animal who might enjoy this work:
- LOVES interacting with strangers. I’m not talking about an animal that is “OK” around or tolerates strangers, but one who seeks out the company of people, perhaps over others of his own species. A therapy dog is genuinely relaxed, confident, and comfortable being touched/handled/cuddled/snuggled/smooshed by strangers (not just family). In other words, a happy therapy animal is forgiving of people who do things that are rude in dog language (or horse language, or cat language, etc.).
- Develops a social and emotional relationship with strangers. In other words, a happy therapy animal interacts with strangers in a manner that helps clients feel like the animal really wants to be with them.
- Is very accepting of and at ease around people acting differently than people do at home. People who are ill, for example, act differently than people who are feeling well. An animal who is worried about people who act differently than what he considers “normal” will not be happy working in animal-assisted interactions.
- Is confident in an environment that is different from home. Visiting environments (healthcare settings, prisons, schools, etc.) contain dynamics that are quite different from home in sounds, sights, smells, energy level, and activity level. A happy therapy animal is confident and feels at home in a variety of environments.
- Has exceptional self-control and focus. Visiting environments are full of distractions. A happy therapy animal is physically calm and content in the midst of both exciting and possibly anxiety-producing distractions. In addition, a therapy animal is able to ignore those distractions and focus on the client.
- Is psychologically sound and mature. It can be challenging to visit people who are physically or mentally ill, incarcerated, in school classrooms, etc. Just like you can feel tired after a day’s work, a therapy animal can feel tired after interacting with strangers. Some animals have a tendency to bring the woes of others home with them. Others let clients’ woes roll off their backs. A happy therapy animal leaves work at work.
- Is physically and emotionally healthy and mature. Adult animals are better able to deal with the challenges of AAI better than baby animals. Some people are overly eager to get their puppies involved in AAI work, yet puppies deserve to have a puppy-hood before they begin working. (There are child labor laws for a reason!) This does not mean that you should delay training until a puppy is an adult! Proper, age-appropriate socialization and training are essential for a well-mannered animal, whether a therapy animal or a companion. As Patricia McConnell says, many dogs are most appropriate as therapy dogs when they are 5 years old or older! A happy therapy animal is emotionally resilient and has a healthy, mature immune system.
Some of those characteristics are largely a matter of personality (or temperament); others can be affected by training. If the animal is physically and emotionally sound, then often the training can follow – if the handler is willing to do so!
I prefer to focus on the positives. At the same time, I have discovered through experience that sometimes people need a list of negatives to really understand a subject. As a result, the following list includes characteristics that are not appropriate for a therapy dog. If your dog has these attributes, please consider a different job for your dog:
- Overly enthusiastic
- Guards resources (toys, food, you, etc.)
- Focuses on you more than on others
- Licks others frequently or drools a lot
- Health concerns
If you’re considering doing therapy-dog work, complete this Self-Evaluation Questionnaire about you and your dog to see where you stand.
Training for Therapy Dog Work
We offer training for people who wish to train their dogs for therapy dog work (AAI). Animals other than dogs can become remarkable therapy animals, and the training method we use is applicable to all species. However, we limit our instruction to dog handlers and their dogs because our training experience lies mostly with dogs.
We use positively based training methods in our classes. We prefer clicker training for therapy dog work for two significant reasons:
- It fosters a compassionate, respectful working relationship between you and your dog that is decidedly evident to clients and staff in AAI sessions.
- It provides a positive and highly accurate method of communication between you and your dog.
We can meet with you individually or you can attend a group class if you have a group of four people (and dogs). Due to the small size of our training room, we must limit class size to four handler-animal teams. Small class size also provides you with personalized instruction and constructive feedback on your progress.
There are three important aspects of therapy dog work: the handler’s skill, the dog’s manners, and the dog’s personality.
- Handler Skill. There are two primary areas where handlers need skill: handling their animal, and dealing with clients while handling their animal. Animal handling for animal-assisted interactions requires very different skills than do other dog sports and activities. Some handler behaviors or cues that are appropriate in other settings are quite inappropriate for AAI. Further, talking and interacting with clients requires one skill set. Talking and interacting with clients while effectively handling a dog requires another skill set. As you can see, the handler must be able to split his/her attention and do two things at once!
- Dog Manners. The dog must have very good basic obedience skills. In general this means sitting when asked, lying down when asked, walking on a loose leash, leaving something alone when asked, staying in place briefly, taking food nicely, and being neutral when meeting another dog. If your dog doesn’t already have these basic skills down pat, then take a refresher obedience course. (In general, therapy dog training courses teach you how to apply those skills in a visiting situation; they do not teach you those skills.) Here is where the style of training can have a dramatic effect: Positive, reward-based training methods show up in your dog’s attitude about you and about people being visited. Forcing a dog to visit with people is antithetical to the essence of AAI. The handler plays a key role in helping the dog be successful with these skills. How the handler does this is the difference between a team that inspires confidence and a team that merely gets by.
- Dog Personality. The dog must LOVE people – all kinds of people – but still be under control (see manners, above). This means that the dog must be happy (not fearful, stressed, or aroused by) being around people who look and act differently than how you look and act at home. Visits can include rough handling, peculiar gate or movements, angry yelling, crowded petting, use of healthcare equipment, etc. Personality is not something that can be taught to a dog. Your dog either has the personality for this work or he doesn’t. We can help dogs feel more comfortable in situations that might be a little anxiety provoking, but we never insist that a dog love being around people when he doesn’t really love that.
Dogs can also change their minds about therapy dog work after being involved for a while. Have you ever discovered that a job wasn’t quite the right match for you after being in it? We must respect our dog’s choice. At the same time, handlers can learn techniques to help their dogs de-stress and cope with the stresses of working to avoid burnout.
Therapy Dog 1 Class
This six-week class focuses on skills dogs and handlers need in order to work well together as a team while visiting people in facilities. This class prepares teams to pass therapy dog evaluations. This class does not include an evaluation. Class fee is $165/team (includes handouts and a copy of the book, “Teaming With Your Therapy Dog”). Class size is limited to four teams. Small class size helps me provide individualized instruction without overcrowding a small space. Skills we cover include:
- Fostering a therapeutic relationship with your dog
- Applying basic obedience skills in a therapeutic environment
- Meeting patients/clients appropriately and safely
- Meeting other dogs appropriately in a therapeutic environment
- Your role as a therapeutic animal handler
- Signs of dog stress and what to do about it
Prerequisites: Handlers must be willing to use positively based training methods. Dogs must be at least 10 months old and know how to walk on a loose leash and stay in a quiet stand, sit, or lie down before taking this class. (In other words, this class is about applying basic obedience/manners skills to a therapy environment; it does not teach basic manners.) Dogs must work well on a flat collar or harness (no slip, choke, or prong collars). Aggressive or reactive dogs are not appropriate as therapy dogs.
Intermediate skills include:
- Furthering your therapeutic relationship with your dog and perfecting your handling skills
- Dealing with food, “sniffables,” and other distractions commonly found in visiting environments
- Remaining safe around medical equipment (wheelchair, walker, cane)
- Strengthening your dog’s focus in distracting visiting environments
- Interacting safely and effectively with people who are ill, disabled, or behaviorally disordered
- Safe positioning for chair and bed visits
Advanced skills include:
- Teaching novel behaviors
- Walking along the side of a walker or wheelchair
- Left and right
- Head down on lap
- Turn around
- Walk on
General Clicker Training Information
What is clicker training? You might think that there is a standard answer for that, but in a survey of the top clicker trainers in the U.S. during the summer of 2004, expert Kathy Sdao found that each trainer has his/her own slant on what clicker training is. So here is our definition: Clicker training is a highly effective method of training where we communicate clearly with the dog about what “works” (gets rewarded) and what doesn’t work (gets no reward).
In addition, clicker training focuses on motivating your dog rather than forcing your dog. Most of us want a loving and respectful relationship with our animal companions. If you are uncomfortable with training methods that cause pain to your dog, or force your dog into submission, or end up with a fearful rather than a joyful dog, you will be thrilled with the results you get through clicker training. Clicker training enhances your relationship with your dog without losing performance.
As you might imagine, clicker training does not use force. This method is used to train marine mammals (think Shamu) to do the amazing things they do in shows, and it is pretty hard – no impossible – to force a killer whale to do something. As a result, people with disabilities find that they can train their dogs without having to physically position a dog or force him to do something. Children tend to catch on to this method particularly fast (much to the chagrin of their adults). We believe it is possible for everyone (who wants to) to use clicker training effectively.
One of the most frequent questions we receive is, “Does this mean I have to have a clicker with me all the time?” The answer is, “No.” Some people don’t even use a clicker! But during training sessions, it is essential to have a unique way of “marking” specific behaviors in a way that your dog clearly understands. A clicker helps with this. If you are physically unable to use a clicker, your instructor will help you find a way that works for you and your dog. Instructors also teach people how to use a tool they have with them all the time so that when they don’t have their clicker, they can still take advantage of that trainable moment to help their dog learn.
Clicker training is based on scientific principles, not guesswork or trying to figure out what makes a dog do something. (“Is he mad at me?” “Is he trying to get back at me?”) Karen Pryor is a pioneer – and guru – of clicker training in the U.S. Please view her website for excellent information.