In dog training everyone trains their dog differently, some with and some without food. A lot of people think that they are bribing their dogs to behave or to do specific skills, correct behaviors or commands. To help them think this idea through, one way is to have them look at how their parents raised them.

My parents gave me a butterscotch candy when I behaved or when I was able to figure out those pesky math story problems. If I made good grades in school, which were few and far between, I may have gotten to stay up late or have been allowed to go on church service trip. So let’s think this through.. reward based training with kids and dogs is really nothing new!

Dogs are especially easier to train when they get something in return for what you want them to do. After all they really only want to please you AND themselves, right! You can use the treats you buy at your local pet store, cooked hot dogs, cooked bacon, dog kibble, but whatever you use make sure it is like chocolate to your dog. Something he may not get all the time, but a treat that makes him want it all that much more! Then there are dogs who readily will work for a toss of a ball, rather then a tasty treat, but there always one isn’t there? In either case watch your fingers!

If you ask your dog for a ‘down’, in most cases you point to the ground and he lies down, you then give him a treat. Like your parents might have done, you may also want to say ‘Good Boy/Girl’, enthusiastically! If he doesn’t go down immediately, you get a treat, let him smell it and lead his nose down to the ground. If you consistently do this he will continue to follow your direction, knowing he will get your verbal approval and the treat each time. You will want to also add the word ‘down’ as he learns the behavior. Some trainers believe that the dog must learn the behavior first before the word can be attached, I am not one of them. I train using both the word and the action at the same time. If one of my dogs gets up after I have placed him in a down, I say ‘oops’, and he immediately returns to the down. Letting your dog think about why he didn’t get a treat is all part of the process.

I also incorporate clicker training into my positive reinforcement techniques. It is said that you can train a dog 50% faster by using a clicker, I have found this to be true. The clicker is much like the whistle that Sea World uses to train their Orcas. When the trainer blows the whistle the whale knows that the trick is completed and he will get a fish. Whether it is a whale or a dog it is all in the timing. Once you click (mark) your clicker for the good behavior you want to immediately give your dog a treat. If you fiddle around with your treat bag, it will be hard for you to know what your dog is being treated for, so you want to have your treat ready before you mark your dog’s behavior. Here is an example; Let’s say you call your dog to you, he comes, you mark the behavior with a clicker but you do not have the treat ready, so while you are getting it out of the bag, he sits down, when you are ready with the treat, what are you treating him for the come or the sit? Be prepared with your treat before the intended exercise is completed.

Once you have trained your dog to do a behavior for food, and he has it down, no pun intended, you can gradually pull away from giving him a treat every time. Don’t totally quit just spread the time out between treats..and pass the salami please!

Body language in dogs is similar and different depending on the situation and where you are. I have observed many different signals made by dogs when greeting people, kids, patients and other dogs. What I want to talk about here though is some of the stress signals that dogs give you when you are working in a therapy venue.

Signs of stress are common in working dogs. In hospitals with all of the bodily odors of human waste, infection, food, and disinfectant smells it is amazing to me that therapy dogs are willing to continue to visit those in need. When your dog exhibits heavy panting it may be that it is too hot in the hospital, he is thirsty or it may be caused by stress. Another reaction is when a dog turns away from the person that you want them to visit. This is a clear sign that the dog does not want to visit that person. On a recent visit with a new team I watched the dog stop abruptly in the hallway, kind of like she was skidding to a stop, and then she pivoted her body away from the man in the wheelchair we were approaching. We had been there for half an hour already so I think she was telling us she was done. Not only may a dog change it’s body direction when it becomes stressed but it may also lick it’s lips, tuck it’s tail or in extreme cases drool. If the latter is present the dog should not be working as a therapy dog due to the amount of stress they are exhibiting.

Part of your training when becoming a therapy dog team should cover the basics of dog stress. Your trainer should be able to help you decipher whether your dog’s stress level will help or hinder you in therapy work. Therapy work and the stressors that can come with it are just not for every dog or handler.

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It still makes me laugh!! :D

Many therapy organizations prep their dog and handler teams for therapy work by practicing the bare essentials of basic
obedience skills and loose leash walking. Although these skills are necessary they are not the only skills that a dog team should have when beginning work as part of a therapy dog team.

One of the skills that is high on my list of teaching a therapy dog is the ‘leave’ or ‘leave it’. I use this cue primarily when directing a dog to leave food, gauze and bandages, dropped pills, other animals, or anything that I consider that the dog should not come in contact with alone. It could even be food that a patient has spilled on themselves so in this case I would want to change the cue from ‘leave it’ to ‘leave’. It is also a useful cue if there is a cat on the premises roaming free or even when you are out walking and a dog is barking in the distance or a person your dog is barking at, is walking by. Often times your dog may ignore the cue, not to the point of picking the item up, but just sniffing it. Some trainers may think this is ok, however in most cases when you use this cue you do not want a dog to have contact with the item at all. This is because in hospitals and other health care facilities you have no way to protect your dog from bacteria, infections or poisons, as your dog can not wear a mask or gown when visiting patients. If you are in a hallway, instead of a patients room or a community room with other patients and you notice something that could be hazardous down the hall, you tell your dog to ‘leave it’ before you get to it. When you do reach it and he ignores the cue, you should then change the tone of your voice and firmly say ‘leave it’. This usually works, as the tone of your voice will make your dog know you mean business!

‘Leave it’ can also be used when working in other therapy environments. When working with children in libraries and schools there may also be some children that are afraid of dogs and if your dog gets overly excited when greeting children you can put them in a down/stay and say ‘leave’ while encouraging the child forward to greet your dog.

It is important to remember that you, as the handler, are responsible for your dog’s well-being and whatever awaits you while working as a therapy dog team in a variety of venues.

Most people think that their dog would be a great therapy dog, and often times they are right! But prospective therapy owners and their dogs need to be trained in what to expect before they enter an area nursing home, hospital, hospice or school reading program. Not only is it a fun and rewarding activity that we do with our dogs, but it is also a commitment that we make to the people that we serve. Therapy dog teams in this field need to be aware that they will need to continue their education through additional dog training classes and therapy educational seminars where available.

Owners and their dogs should come to a volunteer organization well trained. The dogs should have basic obedience skills, like sit, sit/stay, down, down/stay, stay, and a solid recall. Though the dogs should rarely, if ever, be off of a leash during a therapy session, they should know this skill set fluidly, preferably by verbal command. The reason a verbal command is important in therapy, is because a dog team may work with individuals that can not speak well, yet need speech therapy. When working in an AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy) situation you may not always be in front of your dog to give them hand signals. Voice commands from you to your dog in these circumstances would be preferred if not expected. If you have trained your dog in hand signals you will want to incorporate verbal commands as well.

Dogs who are sought after for therapy dog training are well socialized and predictable around all types of people and ethnicities, children, the elderly, other dogs and other animals. Therapy dogs are well behaved, easily controlled, don’t bark, calm and LOVE people! It should be noted that it is most important that the dog enjoy what they are doing at all times! If you notice that your dog is experiencing stress, it is time to leave the environment.

All dogs have different personalities, some are calm, some appear happy all of the time, some jump for joy literally when they see a human being, some need our encouragement and all our guidance and love. It is always important to know your dog well, know how to read your dog for signs of stress, know your dog well enough to know how your dog will react around other dogs and certain types of people. In most cases you and your dog will be evaluated in these areas before being approved by any organization to visit their clients. If your dog loves chasing rabbits and squirrels in the back yard, leave him in the back yard to keep those critters busy. Dogs with a high prey drive or herding instincts are not well suited for therapy work. These dogs thrive on agility, nose work, dock diving and disc competitions. If you have a dog that you keep outside all of the time and he guards the perimeter of your home or has been trained in Schutzhund or bite/guard training, he is NOT therapy dog material!

The good thing is that there are no specific breeds that make a great therapy dog! Pit Bulls, Golden Retrievers, Shi Tzu’s, mixed breeds, Greyhounds, Spaniels, Mastiffs and even some designer dogs make for great therapy dogs! Unfortunately not all therapy dog organizations accept all breeds. All dogs, like people, have their own personality so if you are looking to get a certain dog specifically to train to be a therapy dog, read up on the attributes for that dog breed and learn their pro’s and con’s. If it is a designer dog, be sure to look at both breeds. Often times breed books will give you information on the ease of training that particular breed.

I have recently thought of a way to utilize the animal-human bond within the ranks of our ever growing senior retirement facilities. Hopefully, by writing about it here other therapy dog trainers will at least think about the possibilities and others, so that more people will benefit from volunteering from the inside-out. In the end, helping others through well thought out programs that include individuals canine pets, well trained owners/handlers and in-patient residents all will reap the benefits of the unconditional love that a therapy dog can bring.

I have a ninety-one year old friend who lives in a progressive nursing facility. I call it that, in that one can live in independent living all of the way up through hospice. There are several residents in the independent living apartments that have little dogs. I have brought my English Springer Spaniel there on several occasions to visit and have encountered many sweet smaller dogs. While visiting I have spoken to several residents that are interested in the idea of training their own pets. Being a dog trainer and a therapy dog trainer, of course a light bulb went off! I thought wouldn’t it be great if we could assist the residents in training their own dogs, as well as encourage them to take their dogs, once trained, to visit the various levels of care, at the health care center where they live? I visualize this as helping so many more people, from the inside-out!

Not only would this type of program benefit those independent individuals that wish to participate with their own dogs, but also those that may never be returning to independent living due to their advanced stage of health. Living in a permanent health, memory or hospice care facility can be isolating and lonely. As a therapy dog trainer and a program coordinator I can envision this program in making a brighter and easier transition for this at-risk group.

An Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) handler class can be extremely beneficial to a new or seasoned therapy team interested in learning more about what is expected of the handler. The class will encourage the handler to stay up to date on any changes in the AAI therapy field that may affect the overall performance of the team. This class would apply to not only Animal Assisted Activity (AAA) teams but also to Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) teams. At one time Pet Partners, aka Delta Society, was the only well known organization that offered any type of handler class. Since then other AAI organizations have developed their own individual handler classes to meet their volunteers needs.

In each location that you and your dog visit there may be different rules and regulations. Various kinds of hospitals, skilled nursing and memory care facilities have their own separate set of rules. Often times these locations require you to sign up as a volunteer with them, go through an interview with you and your dog and require you to have a TB test. Other locations like schools and local libraries may have you get a background check done or have you complete a volunteer application for their files.

A handler class will teach you how to start a visit and about how to handle unusual situations. Here are some examples; You and your dog enter a room and no one speaks English, How would you handle that? What if your dog vomited in a patients room while visiting, what should you do? What if your dog is clearly uncomfortable while visiting a person, what do you do? A nursing staff member is afraid of dogs, what do you do? Do you ask them to leave so you can visit the patient or do you come back? How long do therapy dogs work, before they take a break? If a patient grabs a hold of your dog and won’t let go what do you do?

There are many scenarios out there that you just don’t think about until they happen to you. Learn to read your dogs behavior, take breaks as needed and look for a therapy dog handler’s class near you!

The saying ‘Knowledge is Power’ couldn’t be more true in this case!


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