A common remark made by therapy dog handlers to clients when a dog is overly excited and exuberantly greet’s a patient is, “Oh, he is SO excited to see you”.  As a therapy dog handler it is essential that our dogs have basic obedience training and have been taught not to jump or lean on people. Leaning is especially hard to break. My Lab/Airedale mix, Eddie, is a leaner. He never did it when he worked as a therapy dog, but he still does to people he knows. I think the reason he never did it to the clients was because I always would positioned him, usually with my knee so he couldn’t. He could visit by resting his head on a clients lap, or by standing next to them by their bed or wheelchair. He is very tall, calm and easy for patients to reach.

Not all dogs are calm when visiting a therapy venue. They become excited by the odors, the environment, sounds, new people, children and food. If they are new to the venue, they may even be frightened.  Their tail may be between their legs, they may be looking back at you for reassurance wanting a touch or a treat. In either case you would want to have taken your dog for a long walk or a run before visiting the venue. This will help you and him relax, in time for your visit.

This technique can be used for any possible stressful situation that comes up. I use it if I am going to have company over, or if I am going to take a group dog training class. It is amazing how exhausted a dog can get after a few laps around the yard. Another way to wear your dog out is to use a Kong Wobbler, or another dog treat dispenser. Each dispenser comes in a variety of sizes and styles but the Wobbler  is red and large. You put a few treats or kibble in the hole dispenser. I make my dogs sit and wait until I release them. Once I do it is a good half hour of fun for them to get all of the kibble out of the dispenser after knocking it around the house with their nose. Shortly afterwards both of them are conked out for a snooze.

As advocates for our dogs in all circumstances we must take the time to make sure that they are properly trained and prepared for every environment we take them to when helping others.


Every pet owner who trains their dog to be a therapy dog has an idea as to where they want to spend time volunteering their services. But not surprisingly, not all dogs or owners for that matter are up for the task.

When I first thought of training my English Springer Spaniel of being a therapy dog I just wanted to help others. So I read up on everything I could get my hands on to learn about the different types of opportunities that were out there, as well as learn what type of training and organizations were available for my dog and myself.

Springer’s are known to be great family dogs so initially I envisioned us at any venue, and we did try many venues, but when it came down to it we had to weed out quite a few. Knowing your dog, and your dog’s strengths, weaknesses, behaviors, stress signals, what he wants when he whines or barks, when he needs to go out, when he is done, or what it means and looks like when a dog shuts down.

My dog’s best fit turned out NOT to be in a hospital, nursing home, adult day care or anyplace where there was a possibility of high odor or new scents.  We tried; I took him to Hospice and he visited all of the relatives around the room, but when he got to the bed, of the soon to be deceased, he turned away and dragged me from the room.  After that we did not go to a hospital, but tried a nursing home instead.  This led to more distractions from all of the odors that he could smell but I couldn’t, both human, medicinal and chemical smells from cleaning. This made him frantic to find the source so he had no interest in visiting with people. Not an ideal environment for THIS therapy dog.

The next step was to find a venue where he would be happy and still experience affection and give love. So I decided to try working with children. Visiting a venue prior to taking your dog is a great way of determining if it is a good fit, especially if it isn’t. I went to  observe a grief support program for children without my dog. There were other dog teams at this venue so it was not one on one visitation. The children were accompanied by a team member of the venues organization and came into visit the dogs with different age groups of children. There were three dog teams in a very small room.  Some of the boys were loud and wild, as young as my dog was it probably wouldn’t bother him, but it made me nervous and that would ruin the visit for my dog. So I felt that this venue was not for us.

We found our niche at the local library and then later as a R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dog) in local Title 1 schools in Indiana. What this visit entails is young readers read to my dog, while he listens intently and lies quietly next to them. If they need help with a word then I will help, but otherwise it is between them and my dog. Occasionally my dog will make comments (me) about the story or roll on his side to get closer to the child and get petted.

When you choose a visitation venue it really needs to be a good choice for both of you. And it is true that if you are anxious or nervous that your reaction will travel down the leash to your dog.

I was thinking today about all of the articles I have been reading lately and of how the terminology that is used has become a bit blurry when describing what a therapy, service, assistance dog or emotional support animal actually does or mean and how each are different.

So here goes…..

Animal Assisted Interventions

By definition an Animal Assisted Activity (AAA) therapy animal is a pet owned by an individual and is taken to facilities like a hospital, nursing home, school, library, adult day care to visit with a group of people. Some therapy animals even participate in a patient’s mobility rehabilitation by fetching a ball or tugging on a rope with them, thus working with them to improve their strength.  This is called Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). AAT animals are also used in schools to help young readers improve their reading skills and gain confidence by reading out loud to a pet. An umbrella word currently in use is Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) for both of these types of therapy with animals. Most organizations use pet dogs to accomplish AAA visitation, but in some cases cats, mini-horses, and even llamas have been known to be utilized.

Service and or Assistance Dogs

In the United States, the American Disabilities Act (ADA) only recognizes a dog as a Service/Assistance animal. A Service and or Assistance dog are one in the same. A Service dog is trained to help an individual with a disability with their daily living requirements.  The key word is disabled. A Service dog may provide support to their owner by bracing them to stand, pulling their wheelchair, opening doors, turning on lights, picking up dropped items, alerting for seizures, low sugar and doorbells etc.

Although there is currently no law registering service or assistance dogs it is likely that the federal government will implement this especially with the influx of veterans returning home injured from war currently and in coming years. This will not only help our war veterans, but also get rid of the ‘fake’ service dog trainers and online certifications that have popped up recently. In reality service dogs take a minimum of 2-3 years to train and usually cost upward from $10k-$20k to purchase. One third of the service dogs trained nationwide presently do not pass the Assistance Dogs International (ADI) Public Access Test.

Although the Public Access test is not required in all states, a service dog should be able to pass it if he is intended for use in public. Finding a responsible organization who trains and sells service dogs is important if you want a quality service dog partner.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals (ESA) is a new term for a branch of service animal. ESA’s are prescribed by a mental health professional and are not limited to canines. You may live with your ESA anywhere as long as you have a written prescription from your doctor. You may also take your ESA into the cabin of a airplane when you  travel but you are NOT allowed to take your animal everywhere that a service dog is commonly allowed to go. ESA’s are not allowed in public facilities, like movie theaters, restaurants or clothing and grocery stores as service dogs are, because ESA’s are not NOT considered a service animal at this time.

So to be clear the difference between a service and or assistance dog and a Emotional Support Animal is a Service or Assistance dog can go ANYWHERE their owner with a disability goes because they are trained to provide daily living skills for their owner, as many disabilities may be life threatening. An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) provides a sense of love, companionship and comfort, security, lessens nervous behavior, anxiety, PTSD, panic, depression and is prescribed only by a mental health professional and does not have the same privileges that a service dog does in public.

Facility Dog

There is one other category that has gained popularity in this country. That is the Facility dog. Often times the facility dog is confused with a therapy dog. A facility dog is a therapy dog but the difference is that a facility dog is trained more like a service dog than a therapy dog, due to the longevity of the day. Facility dogs are often found in schools, funeral homes and in private practice doctor’s offices. Facility dogs are trained to withstand the long 8-9 hour day in one location like a service dog would.  Due to this a Facility dog’s life span, like a service dog’s, can be shortened due to stress. Facility dogs go to their place of work and stay all day with their handler interacting with the people that he is trained to be with. In funeral homes the dog is often at the front door there to greet people as they are coming to plan for a loved one’s funeral or they are there to spend time with the children that are there during a funeral. It is the responsibility of the handler or staff to give the facility dog breaks throughout the day, take them out, throw a ball, distress and recharge them for the rest of their day. Then at the end of the day they will go home with their handler.

Teachers seem to be the most common denominator who want to take their pets to the classroom.  Gone are the days of having a classroom pet, hamster or turtle. Certainly they were less distracting! But with therapy dogs becoming the norm in classroom reading programs it is understandable that a teacher would want to consider getting a facility dog. Bringing a facility dog into the classroom is a major commitment for a school. They would need to buy a dog, not a puppy, have it trained and someone on staff would become its owner/handler. The handler would take it home every night and bring it back every day. The dog would have a crate, toys, water, in the teacher’s office for relaxing and when they were working the teacher would be their handler. A teacher or counselor who takes on this role would want to take a dog handling class. This would especially be beneficial when working the dog around children. The facility dog should be already acclimated around children.  But learning a dog’s stress signals, continuing socialization and how a dog interacts with people, other animals and strange dogs is an essential tool for any handler. The school too will need to absorb insurance costs, staff and handler training, vet bills, etc.  There are a lot of things to consider when bringing a dog into a school environment and there will be many headaches too.

But the greatest reward is the unconditional love that the right facility dog will bring to the classroom.


Therapy dogs are taking it to the streets across the nation.

Many colleges and private institutions across our nation have added therapy dog teams to their hectic schedules during exams. Colleges especially have asked therapy dog organizations to participate in ‘finals week’ giving students an opportunity to relax and reboot while petting a therapy dog. Not only are these dogs helpful in offsetting the sometimes intense anxiety caused by testing but being present assists students in socializing more with each other. After all who can resist a fluffy pooch and the conversation that follows?

As therapy dogs ingratiate themselves into the daily lives of humans you would be surprised to know that many people are not as accepting of this new trend. While most employees and physicians find the presence of a dog enriching to their co-workers and patients, some personnel are still too afraid of dogs to reap the benefit. Some responsibility lies in a persons upbringing and/or culture which may influence whether an adult is fearful of dogs.

One way to change the outcome is to start with our children. Even children who have only seen police dogs or aggressive guard dogs chained up in their own back yards have come to care for and even love the therapy dogs that visit them in schools and hospitals. It is hard to break the human-animal bond once a child makes a dog their friend. Therapy dogs  are nonjudgmental, they listen without comment, their patience knows no bounds and they love unconditionally. What child could resist that?

So if you are afraid of dogs, learn how to overcome it. You don’t want your child to learn from you to be afraid of dogs, especially if one day they may have need of a therapy or service dog.







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.