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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!

Most therapy dog teams at my organization like to work with children. It is encouraging to see a child read their first book successfully at the library or to visit with your dog at the children’s hospital, but there are others who will benefit from the interaction your dog can give as well.

Adult day care is a venue that the general public may not be aware of. Adult day care is a place where parents and caregivers of patients with Down Syndrome, Alzheimer, Dementia and other catastrophic conditions who normally are being cared for in their own home, can be dropped off for the day. This gives the caregiver(s) an opportunity to complete errands of their own or take a much needed break during the day. At adult day care there are activities and games, handled by a professional licensed staff and volunteers. Then twice a month a therapy dog comes to visit! Well at least at mine!

There are some challenges that the therapy dog team may encounter when working in this environment. One of the first that comes to mind is adult children with Down Syndrome. These young adults may run up to your dog wanting to kiss him on the head or face repeatedly during the visit. Make sure that your dog is comfortable with this. Not all dogs like to be approached in this way, as it is confrontational and direct, watch his body language. If your dog tries to turn his head away, it means he is not comfortable with it. So walk him away from the situation, you may also tell the client that he doesn’t like that. It is very important to know your dogs body language and limits in these settings. You are your dogs best advocate! Watch his tail too. Tails that are dropped can be misleading, as some dogs have theirs down most of the time, but if your dog has his tail tucked up under his legs, he is not happy and you should leave immediately! Another one is anxiety, pacing or straining at the leash. If you did not allow your dog to potty before entering the facility, this could be the reason for this behavior, so take a short break and then come back inside.

Be aware too that many older people are afraid of dogs, don’t assume otherwise. There are many ethnicities in this nation, so there are many beliefs, regarding animals and their place. Always ask a person if they would like to pet your dog, if they say no, or show no interest move on to the next person. I was visiting an Indian man and his mother and he told me that in India there are many wild dogs that roam the streets and people do not touch them, so it was a rare treat for his mother to touch a dog. My pleasure was in the gleeful smile on her face, and the chatter we created!

The Good Shepherd- Jo Coudert
A Dog Who is Always Welcome- Lorie Long
Healing Companions- Jane Miller
Animal Assisted Interventions for Individuals with Autism- Merope Pavlides
Through a Dogs Eyes- Jennifer Arnold
Therapy Dogs Today-Kris Butler

It is always important to keep up with what is going on in the therapy dog training world. You can do this by taking classes offered by other trainers and organizations or taking advanced courses or any course that the organization that you volunteer for offers. There have been several books written about therapy dogs, their owners and the work they do. I have posted a book list of those that I found especially resourceful. Please let me know if you have others that you have also found helpful.

Recently the organization I volunteer for has become an affiliate of the group Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA). ITA offers a program called R.E.A.D. which stands for Reading Education Assistance Dogs. This program offers two training workshops for beginners and advanced volunteers. R.E.A.D. dog teams are available for all young readers in inner city schools, outlying areas and libraries to build their confidence in reading out loud and improve their reading skills. Young readers have found it easier to read to a patient dog listening to their every word, than to their parents or their peers. Not only has it been documented that the child’s reading improves, but some children who may have been afraid of dogs, find new friends in the dogs that listen to them read. Much like new skills learned in a dog training class there are additional skills that may be needed for your therapy dog to become a reading dog. A dog that is able to hold a down/stay for up to 30 minutes at a time may be a candidate for a reading dog.

Often times therapy dog class participants express a desire to take a trick training class. Although tricks are not generally part of the therapy dog visit, in some cases, especially when working with children, a few tricks are acceptable. If I am at a library with one of my dogs, I will offer to let the child ‘train’ my dog to do tricks AFTER the reading session. This not only is fun for the child, but also builds up their self-confidence when the dog actually does the trick they have asked for. Having a child ‘train’ your dog to do a trick is a reward in itself for the child and the dog, as it reflects a job well-done! If you allow a child to give your dog a treat make sure that the child’s hand is kept flat, and that your dog takes treats graciously.

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