Would you like to share the joy of your dog’s companionship with the less fortunate? Could your pet pooch be a certified therapy dog?
It doesn’t take an obedience champion to be a good therapy dog. Purebred or mutt, large breed or smallbreed, it makes no difference. If your dog is sociable, gentle, and reasonably well-mannered, he may be able to qualify as a therapy dog, to visit with seniors or disabled people in nursing homes and hospitals.
- The dog who is friendly — who really likes people in general — is already a promising candidate.
- The dog who is friendly and well-behaved — no jumping, running around, licking people without permission — is on his way.
- The dog who is trained to work around people who are bedridden or in wheelchairs, who is always under the handler’s control, and who can perhaps perform a few entertaining tricks — is already halfway to certification.
- The dog who can take accidental alarms in stride (such as when a disturbed client yells or brandishes a cane), who can deal alike with the endlessly repetitive interactions of Alzheimer’s patients, with the grabbing and gurgling of infants, and with the unpredictability of psychiatric patients — and give every sign of enjoying his work — is indeed a Therapy Dog.
Although the actual formal training that is required of the dog-and-handler team will depend on the program and location, “company manners” are essential. Temperament of the dog is the single most important factor, indeed, so therapy dogs are screened and tested before joining a visiting program.
For anyone interested in therapy dog volunteer work, a good starting point for training would be the Canine Good Citizenship (American Kennel Club) or Canine Good Neighbour (Canadian Kennel Club) certification programs. These are non-competitive evaluations that are all about good manners, both at home and out in the community.
Testing for both the AKC and CKC programs aims to assess the relationship between the dog and its handler, the dog’s social interactions with both people and other dogs, and obedience to a few standard commands.
No fancy tricks are required, and the evaluator is not looking for the kind of precise response that would be expected in the obedience show-ring. This is a test designed for your average well-manner family pet — for companion animals — and it is normally judged on a “pass” or “needs more work” basis, so you don’t need to feel embarrassed if your dog doesn’t get his certification on his first time out.
There are some slight differences between the Canadian and American programs, but those differences are very slight. Here is the basic line-up of tasks to be performed in either of the programs’ tests:
- Accepting a friendly stranger
- Patiently sitting for petting — a test for shyness and resentment
- Appearance & grooming —showing the owner’s care & sense of responsibility
- Out for a walk — loose-lead walking shows the handler’s control of the dog
- Walking through a crowd— the dog moves through a crowd under handler control without showing over-excitement or distress
- Commands: Sit, Down, Stay, Come — this illustrates that the dog has been trained and responds well to its handler/owner
- Praise/interactions — shows the dog’s relationship with its owner and that it can be calmed down easily
- Reaction to passing dogs
- Distractions — shows that the dog is confident when faced with common distractions (e.g. an object dropped loudly on the floor, shouting, etc.)
- Supervised separation— demonstrated that the dog can remember its training and good manners if it’s left with someone other than the handler.
(Therapy Dogs International, one of the larger certification organizations, adds a few refinements to the CGC test — dogs can’t wear choke collars; greyhounds don’t have to sit; wheelchairs are used as distractions, etc. — but essentially the testing requirements are almost the same as outlined briefly above.)
You can see why many people who hope to enter a therapy dog program with their dogs will start out by completing a Good Citizenship/Good Neighbour program!
At the very least, training to the Canine Good Citizenship or Canine Good Neighbour level of achievement as a dog-and-handler team can only improve your relationship. Your well-mannered dog will be welcomed by friends and family, in the course of his daily life, as a sheer joy to be around — and well on his way to a richly rewarding volunteer job as a nursing-home visiting dog.
To get started, check out the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program in Canada or similar groups in the United States, or contact your local kennel club for a Pet Visitation Program operating in your area. The rewards are beyond measure — for people and dogs alike!
Photo: Langley therapy dog