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Could Your Dog Be a Therapy Dog?

I have been teaching classes with The Good Dog Foundation for almost a year now, and I have really found the work to be very fulfilling.  The Good Dog Foundation has quite a process for dogs, and owners, to become certified as therapy dog teams.  It seems to be an affective and thorough procedure.  The process starts with an evaluation, by a dog trainer, where the trainer can decide if the dog is suitable for one of two different level classes, or perhaps needs some more training.  It is very rare that a dog be completely turned away from trying the evaluation again, but certain aggression would cause this.  Then there are two different levels of class, some dogs can place out of the first, 6 week course, but everyone must complete all 5 weeks of the second level class.  Both the owner who wishes to bring the dog, or owners if there are more than one, must attend each class together, because teams are certified together, your dog is a therapy dog, and you are his therapy dog handler!  Once you complete all five classes, and all accompanying paperwork, you will also be observed on your first visit by a dog trainer.  Good Dog goes through this very thorough process to certify teams as therapy teams, rather than simply allowing people to register their dogs as therapy dogs, without any such process.

There is an important difference between registration and certification. Certification means that the organization has participated in the training of the dog, and the handler. Registration usually reflects a one-time screening, an organization that simply registers it’s teams does not certify that the team is trained to a certain level. Instead, the team is registered as having met minimum requirements.  Good Dog is the only organization in New York City that offers true therapy team certifications.

It is quite a long road, and a lot of work for the people who get through, but after I saw how much it means to the people we visit, I got it!  It is all worth it for the dogs who love this work.  That being said, you might have a wonderful dog, who loves you and anyone who comes into your home, man, woman, or child, but unfortunately outside of that comfort zone of your home, he actually does not enjoy strangers petting him and this even causes him anxiety.  This is always the hardest case, because I can see that the owner has worked hard with his dog, and I can even see how obedient and well mannered the dog is, and I completely believe the owner when he says he knows the dog would never hurt anyone.  Unfortunately sometimes this is just not enough to make a dog a therapy dog.  It is not because I am worried your dog will hurt anyone, it is more likely because I can see in body language and stress signals that the environments and situations this dog will encounter on therapy visits will definitely cause him stress.  There is no reason for this stress, and I cannot allow a stressed dog to move forward because it just isn’t fair.  Even if you have a small dog and you can pick him up and put him in people’s lap, but he is showing clear stress signals, he just knows he cannot get away; this is not fair to the dog, and it is best to just find something you and your dog can do together that does not cause either of you stress or anxiety.

Some stress signs that I will see dogs like this show include: a shake off, where it looks like your dog is shaking water off, but he is dry, yawning, especially audible yawns, cat-like yawns, panting, lip licking, trying to get away from me, or get out the door, urogenital check out, when your dog looks at his private area, whining, nervous urination, and avoiding eye contact.  One or two of these is not terrible, you will probably see your dog display some of these signs while at the vet, but if there are a lot of these, it really means the work will cause stress in your dog’s life that is simply not necessary.

I am looking for a dog who continues to pursue me, even when I act silly or try to mimic behaviors you may see in a therapy visit, the dog continues to come over to me freely and happily and shows a quiet but curious approach.  The behavior looks almost puppy like, but of course without the jumping, mouthing and humping that some puppies do!  A dog that is over excited and jumps all over or does get mouthy during play, also will not be a great fit.  You never know who you may encounter on a visit and it may not be appropriate for your dog to jump, large or small, on people who you come across while doing this work, and you dog certainly cannot put his mouth on people, even if it is a playful way.

It is important to realize that there will be a lot of stresses that you and your dog might encounter on a visit.  Shiny floors can be very stressful for some dogs, all the different smells certainly makes for your dog’s nose to work over time.  Some people may not like dogs and may even be afraid, so you have to be prepared for people who are not interested in meeting your dog, and you need to be able to manage your dog’s behavior in situations where this might occur.

Finally it is important to realize you are your dog’s partner in this work.  you will never hand your leash to anyone else while doing therapy work, it is you and your dog in it together.  It can be tiring for you too!  Therapy dogs cannot travel on public transportation, so getting to and from the visits can be difficult and even expensive.

The reward is huge.  I can honestly say, if you read everything above and you really feel your dog has the right temperament and would do this work happily and without stress, and you have plenty of time to do this work with him, then you will be rewarded with memories that I cannot even begin to do justice here in words.  If a non verbal child sees your dog week after week and one day you walk in and he says “dog!” it is better than winning a marathon!  When someone tells you that they look forward to you coming with your dog every week, it truly is a priceless gain!

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