In my other life I am a Bibliophile. I buy, sell, read and keep books. I can honestly say if this is considered an obsessive behavior than I am all in!  Many people in the dog training industry may poo poo the idea of just reading a book to educate yourself, but I disagree. So much knowledge can be gained from reading about the experiences of others.

Books HD

Books HD

In 2008  when I started training my first therapy dog there were no books on therapy dog work.  And now they are everywhere. Personal experiences, working with select at-risk groups and training are in the variety of books found on the web or at your local bookstore.  Often people think that their dogs would make a great therapy dog and many are correct, but it is more than good training or a sweet personality and this is why reading about therapy dog work is so important prior to taking a class or evaluation.

Back in 1985 a great book was written called ‘The Good Shepherd’, by Jo Coudert. This is a book about one of the first people to start working therapy dogs and the organization she founded. The title refers to her own German Shepherd that helped her cope with loss,  as well as the other teams that she supervised. Another book that reaches out to a specific at-risk community is ‘Animal-Assisted Interventions for Individuals with Autism’, by Merope Pavlides. This book discusses the role of therapy dogs, companion animals for children with Autism and other forms of animal intervention utilizing horses, llamas and dolphins. This is an exceptional book on this at-risk group. The first book that I read on training therapy dogs was ‘A Dog Who’s Always Welcome’, by Lorie Long. This book is more instructive in training your companion dog to work in the therapy field. Some of the information in this book is geared towards training assistance dogs as well. More recently ‘Therapy Dogs Today’, by Kris Butler is in it’s second printing. Kris’ book leans toward not evaluating the dogs so much on their obedience skills but to train the handler on dog behaviors so that they will be more skilled in handling circumstances that arise while they are working in the field. All of these books are helpful in finding your way to working in the therapy field.

Patricia McConnell said it best in an article she wrote, ‘Therapy Dogs Born or Made.’ http://www.patriciamcconnell.com/theotherendoftheleash/therapy-dogs-born-or-made. This article in itself gives you guidelines on what professionals in the therapy field deem to be qualities of a therapy dog. At Paws and Think this article is provided to our potential teams, so that they are aware of what we are looking for when choosing a therapy dog team candidate.


Each non-profit therapy dog organization that you work with will have their own evaluation. Once you have completed their volunteer requirements, filled out their application  and/or assessment on your dog or even have your dog assessed in person they will advise you as to whether you need additional training or can take your dog through their class and evaluation. Most therapy dog evaluations are similar in content to what is in the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test. You can easily pick up a copy of the CGC Handbook at your local library and practice the standards with your dog. Having strong basic obedience skills like sit, stay, come and down along with good communication skills with your dog should make this test easy for you. It really depends on how often you work with your dog on the skills and whether or not he listens to you. Having good communication with your pet is an important step in passing an evaluation.

  • Examples of standards: sit, sit/stay, down, down/stay, come, stand, heel or walk loosely on a leash
  • Most organizations do not allow training collars like prong collars, metal  martingales, or choke chains.
  • Gentle Leaders and  Freedom or Easy Walk Harnesses are good alternatives.
  • Leave or Leave it-when given this cue the dog should not pick anything off the floor during the test
  • Waiting at doorways-so the dog does not rush through the door first
  • Greeting strange dog teams face to face and allowing strangers to pet your dog.
  • Vet check-tugging, touching feet, looking in mouth, checking ears and giving a body hug
  • Walking with the handler around ambulatory equipment i.e.; wheelchairs, walkers, canes and loud people.

These are just some of the skills that may make up a therapy dog evaluation. Many of these are taught in CGC classes. It is not unusual for a therapy dog organization to also add additional skills related directly to working at a therapy venue. These could be side roll, visit, paws up, stand, back (up), say Hi, front and any other verbal cues that you could be asked to demonstrate during an evaluation.

As long as you are confident of you and your dogs abilities, you should not have any problem passing a therapy dog team evaluation.

Reader and Dickens at IPS 58Relatively new to the therapy team world is training your dog to become a reading dog in libraries and schools across the United States and abroad. This type of canine therapy training is considered to make a profound difference in the reading abilities and habits of  young readers today. It builds a child’s self confidence in reading out loud without peer pressure or parents that hover and correct and helps young readers to learn the many joys of reading, and having an imagination all while in the company of a dog.

What takes place is that the dog is trained to lie down next to the child within touching distance, so that there is always the possibility of a physical connection between the dog and the child. The child then starts to read out loud. If the child stumbles on a word then the dog handler may help them sound it out, or if the child speaks too softly the handler may say, ‘Dickens’ missed that word would you speak a little louder so he can hear you’? But the main communication is between the child and the dog. I have seen amazing things happen during these sessions. Often it is subtle, when the child reaches out his/her hand to stroke the dog absentmindedly while reading and other times they will speak directly to the dog and ask them to look at the picture. Training a dog to look directly at the picture may take some additional clicker training to achieve.   Working with children in all stages of life can be very rewarding, as you and your dog will be rewarded with many firsts.

One of the best organizations that encourages young readers through this method  is R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs). The group that you currently volunteer with will need to become an affiliate of R.E.A.D., a division of ITA.org. (Intermountain Therapy Animals), and then you can sign up to become a life time member with them.  They have great training videos on U-Tube, as well as two manuals that you can purchase to educate yourself. An affiliate can also usually get a reduced rate on the manuals as well as offer you the nearest location for a R.E.A.D.  workshop.

Training your dog to be a therapy dog is a fun and active way to bond with your pet while giving back to your community. However is not enough to say that your dog is friendly and loves people to be a great therapy dog,  a dog’s handler plays a key role in making an efficient and cohesive team.

A therapy dog handler is no exception when it comes to being in control and aware of what their dog is doing at all times. There are some dog owners who visit nursing homes and  schools regularly, that do not volunteer through a national or local organizations. These dog owners visit at will and may not been trained as handlers or are properly insured to visit these locations. They are putting everyone including their dogs at risk by doing this.  It is very important that the facility that allows this type of visitation knows what position they put themselves and the clients they serve in when an untrained individual brings their untrained dog into their establishment.

Many teachers, physiologists, school counselors, and physical therapists like the idea of taking their dog to work with them. These individuals may have passed a team evaluation through a volunteer organization initially, but if they are taking their dogs to work and not volunteering for the volunteer organization then the evaluation is deemed invalid. This basically says that they are not continuing the training of the dog or maintaining the skills of the handler either which is recommended on an ongoing basis to keep the team sharp. Many local and national organizations now require every two year evaluations exactly for this purpose.

When a therapy dog team enters a venue, the canine handler knows that they are responsible for the interaction between the client/patient/staff and their dog. This is why it is so important that the handler be trained in how people in general should handle and approach their dog. A dog should be willing to ‘receive’ the client or clients that he is visiting.  Visiting people with a dog is what gives the client a feeling of having a bonding connection between themselves and the dog.  This is why it is the handlers responsibility to make sure each visit has a positive outcome. Having good communication skills with the clients as well as being an effective, knowledgeable canine handler can make each visit rewarding for all involved.  A dog that is  reachable, touchable and accessible is what animal assisted activity is all about.

As a handler you don’t always know what circumstances  will come your way on any given day.  Some staff members at  hospitals or even patients may be afraid of  your dog.  Dogs also react differently to various ethnicities, children and even surroundings.  As a handler you need to know your dog inside and out, what makes him tick, how to make him focus on you, what that ‘look’ means, when he needs to leave, how he acts when he is unhappy, or other stress signals that he may give you.  The handler also needs to know how their dog will react under special circumstances, like the ringing of a school bell, thunderstorms, children running, ambulatory equipment, sirens, hospital equipment, oxygen machines, and riding an elevator among others. It  all may be new to him!  This is why it is important that therapy dogs  be well socialized around all sounds,  and the handler trained to respond appropriately should the need arise.

Knowing your dog and how he will respond when interacting with different at-risk groups is key for any handler regardless of the work they do. It is especially important to know your canine partner when working as a therapy dog handler at any capacity.





If you have seen the news lately, every doctor and nursing administrator of a hospital is jumping on the bandwagon to secure a ‘therapy’ dog for their place of business. These dogs are not your typical therapy dog. As stated before in an earlier blog, therapy dogs are meant for 1-2 hour stints of service and no more. They are not trained for handling the stress of a 8-10 hour day with their handler. The dog for this line of work is a facility dog.

Much like service dogs, facility dogs are chosen by their behavior, temperament, trainability and personality. They are sometimes chosen when they are as young as 3 months old.  A perfect time to start training any puppy. Service dogs may take up to two years or more to be trained to assist an individual with a disability. Often times it is a dog that did not pass the public access test or equivalent for a service dog that is then sold to an individual as a companion animal that becomes a facility dog.  Facility dogs should never be confused as a service dog. Facility dogs may only go into the location they work and do not have the same public access that service dogs do. Facility dogs are often trained by professional dog trainers who have a background in training service dogs or are a service dog provider. Local Indiana service dog providers are ICAN (Indiana Canine Assistance Network)www.icandog.org or Medical Mutts, Inc. www.medicalmutts.com. Both of these organizations train and provide service dogs. The latter will also help you train your own dog.

If an individual trains their own dog, they may want to take a local Public Access Test. This evaluation will prove that they can adequately handle their dog in the environment they work in.  Some service dog organizations may provide this evaluation. For more info on this evaluation, please go to http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/standards/public-access-test

So You Want to Take Your Dog to Work?.

Eddie's best

Happiness in my world comes from having a happy dog doing the work he and I both love! If my dog is not happy going to a nursing home and all he wants to do is go home and sleep, than that is what we will do.  Therapy dogs should enjoy what they do. Unfortunately we humans can be stubborn and find it hard to give up on things that make us happy even at the cost of what our pet desires.

My 5-year-old Collie/Airedale mix Eddie knows in each nursing facility where he needs to go. So I let him lead while I tag along at the end of the leash. He knows which patients room to go to first, where the activities room is, who will give the best hugs and hip massages, who has the special dog biscuits and who doesn’t like dogs. He will make his way around the place like he owns it.  Some memory care patients even know him by name and often tell me how much they miss him when he isn’t there. He also knows when it is time to go to the elevator and head upstairs to the next floor. Too often now he makes it very clear to me when he is ready to leave and head home. Knowing your dogs limits and watching their body language is very important when working with therapy dogs or any working dog. Start out slow, it they are ready to leave after 10 minutes the first time,  that is alright. Like everything that is good for you it takes time to perfect.  If your dog should back away from a patient, turn his head away, lick his lips, or doesn’t initiate contact with them these are clear signs that your dog is unhappy. Time to move on to the next room or maybe even call it quits for the day. The best book/DVD on this is ‘Calming Signals’ by Turid Rugaas. available on Amazon.com and Dogwise.com.

If you have a small therapy dog, like a Chihuahua, and your dog is nervous when he sits on a strangers lap, practice with strangers out side of the venue that you are visiting. Place the dog on someone’s lap, standing beside them, giving your dog treats, speaking to him softly and telling him what a good boy he is for being there. Make his experience a great one, so that your dog will view it that way every time he sits on someone’s lap. Also let the person whose lap he is sitting on give him treats. If he takes them easily you know he is relaxing.

Keep your dog happy and his happiness with radiate through to others in the work that you both do, for many years to come.