Pawsibilities NY

Month: April 2013

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!

All Dogs Resource Guard, Part 2

It is important to read part 1, so if you didn’t get the chance yet, you can read it by clicking the link below:

All Dogs Resources Guard, Part 1

In this part of our resource guarding discussion I will be offering techniques that can be used to desensitize your dog to your approach, and counter condition his feelings about your approach, if he has some bad feelings already, and has shown signs of resource guarding it is important to consult a professional for help because some of these techniques will be risky is you are not certain about your dog will respond.  If you have any fear that he might guard or snap, please contact a trainer, and don’t try these steps until you have.

If you have a dog who will chew his bone happily, but if you stand up from the couch he runs and takes the bone under the coffee table, you could help him to over come this fear of your approach and let him learn that, quite frankly if you are getting up off the couch, it isn’t to take his stinky bully stick, there are likely things you are far more interested in, in the kitchen!  So while you might not worry about this behavior, it is causing stress in your dog’s life, that is completely unnecessary, so let’s help him overcome it!

There are two parts to this training, and from there you could have many different stages that you must complete both steps to move forward.  The first part is desensitization, and the second part is counter conditioning.  You might have to desensitize and counter condition your dog to you leaning towards his bone, as a first stage, and actually touching or picking up his bone as a last stage, so there could be many stages in between.

The key to successful desensitization is not to push it!  I always say it is like gambling, quit while your ahead, don’t keep betting until you are broke!  So when I first start out with a dog that behaves the way I explained in the previous example, where he will take his bone and hide with it, I will start out with a behavior that will be the least threatening to him, so he is learning my approach is not a bad thing, and I might just turn and walk away.  So the very beginning of desensitizing your dog to your approach might look like a dance: you start a distance away that your dog accepts, meaning he does not continue to retreat and put distance between you.  Don’t corner him either, give him the option to run further away, but he chooses not to.  Let’s say 5 steps away, so stand 5 steps away from your dog, let him notice you, maybe count to three, and then turn and walk away.  Don’t rush it!  approach again and take 4 and a half steps toward your dog, and wait a few seconds and walk away.  If he retreats away from you, we have pushed it too far!

Here is a video of me practicing desensitization with a dog who is a low level resource guarder:

The next stage for this might be when i can get within 1 step of my dog, and I might just barely begin to reach for his bone.  If you are standing, don’t bend down and reach for his bone, these are two separate stages, so either bend down near him with his bone, or remain standing and reach for his bone from the standing position, so you don’t come very close to it at all.  Again if at any point he picks up his bone and runs away, you have pushed it too far, so have a seat, and take a break, but definitely do not get upset with your dog!  Just like it is in’t appropriate to punch the dealer in the face when we lose, we cannot get upset with our dog when we push the desensitization too far.  Just take a break, and start again, and learn your lesson!  Think on the bright side; in reality you didn’t lose any money!

For the second part of this training you want to counter condition your dog about his feeling about your approach.  Instead of being something that causes stress or anxiety, teach your dog that approach means really great things happen to him.  Sticking with our above example again, we could sometimes do our approach with some very tasty treats.  As you approach your dog toss him a treat that he can eat right where he is without having to walk away from his bone.  Teach him that when you approach, treats just start coming to him!

If you want to counter condition your dog to your arm reaching for his bone, the easiest way to do this is to have a treat in your hand, reach towards his bone, only enough to not send him running, and leave the treat behind.  Repeat this several times until your dog see your arm coming and he gets excited to see it because he knows it means rewards are coming, rather than his bone is leaving!  Again don’t push it.  Don’t practice a bunch of these and then just grab his bone to take it away.  If you work up to the point that you can put your hand right next to the bone, and leave a treat behind, then you can move onto to touching the bone and leaving a treat behind, or even picking it and putting it right back down with a treat.

Here is a video of me practicing counter conditioning with the same dog:

The key to success will be to work slowly and use management when you can’t train, so that you don’t run into issues where you are forced to take something from your dog.  In other words, if your dogs real trouble is with bully sticks, manage his environment and be sure he never gets a bully stick, unless you are ready to train, and I would suggest having three treats of different levels.  So maybe you have lamb lung as the lowest lever treat, meat log could be the next best thing, and finally boiled chicken could be the best treat option, just in case we need to up the ante!  If it isn’t bully sticks, but instead is something like tissues, that you don’t want you dog to ever have, it is best to work on a leave it command.

To be the most successful with this kind of training I like to lay it out on a piece of paper, I start on the far right and write down my end goal, maybe taking a bully stick from my dog.  I then go to the far left and write something very simple that I believe I will be able to do with my dog, like perhaps approach within 5 feet of my dog while he has Bully Stick.  And then I sit and write as many different stages as I can possibly think of in between.  The more the better!  It might feel like it is going to make more work for you, but it will be quite the opposite, you will have the most success by taking it slow!  So you might have 20 or more stages, and at first in your training sessions you might only get to three or four of them, but just take it slow.

If at any time your dog’s behavior makes you more nervous than you feel comfortable with, please stop this training and consult a professional.  Cetified professionals can be four at the following sites:

Join Us Tonight!  Our very first Blog Dog Walk of the season!  The weather is supposed to be perfect, so come on over to the great lawn at 9:00p.m. and discuss resource guarding, or just come for some good dog talking company!  We will meet near the basketball courts on the great lawn and we weill begin to stroll around the lawn for about an hour, so come at 9:00, or join up with us later.  All are welcome.