Becoming a therapy dog team involves a bit of work beforehand, but the effort is well worth it, say participants.
First, look at yourself. Are you worry-free while in public with your dog? Do you react calmly to stressful situations? Dogs pick up on owners’ stress, so if you’re too nervous to have your dog be in stimulating or hectic situations, this may not be a good choice.
“If the handler is not comfortable, it’s not going to be OK,” says Shari Roberts, Puget Sound Pet Partner Coordinator for the Delta Society in Bellevue, Wash.
Next, know your dog. If he’s not going to enjoy therapy work, this won’t work. Does he like being around new people? Crowds? Children? How does he react to different environments, loud sounds, unfamiliar items (crutches, canes, wheelchairs)? How socialized is he? Does he enjoy being touched? What is his temperament like?
That last question is key. Therapy dogs are calm, confident, even-keeled dogs of any size or breed that love being around people. Purebred or mix, young or old, all are welcome to participate, so long as they don’t have aggression, fear or irritability issues toward people or dogs, and really enjoy interacting with people.
“We don’t want people to think only dogs that make it [as therapy dogs] are perfect,” says Roberts. “You really can modify your animal’s behavior.”
That starts with basic obedience training. Make sure your dog knows how to sit, stay, come, walk well on lead and “leave it.” Consider enrolling in the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen Program, which stresses responsible pet ownership and basic good manners for dogs.
Then contact groups that register therapy dog teams, like the Delta Society or Therapy Dogs International. At the Delta Society, participants enroll in a “Pet Partners Team Training Course,” learning skills needed by both dog and handler to safely visit hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities. Topics covered include how to interact with different types of people and how to be your dog’s best safety advocate while keeping patients happy.
In-person workshops taught by licensed instructors last approximately 12 hours. Courses are offered nationwide or you can complete the course solo via a home study kit.
Next, get a clean bill of health from your veterinarian, and then register with the organization for an evaluation. These are performed by licensed evaluators and focus on exercises and role-playing situations that simulate what therapy teams face in the “real world.” Both the dog and the handler are evaluated equally.
Once passed, you’re ready to send in your registration packet to receive official paperwork and identification.
Now you’re registered, trained and ready to work with a variety of local organizations employing the healing power of pets.