Therapy dog work is all the rage right now, many people are interested in it and there are a lot of people involved in therapy work with their dogs. While it’s terrific that so many people are interested in human-animal interactions, with so many therapy dogs out there, I’ve met some therapy dogs that did not enjoy doing therapy work.
But wait, you say, that dog “passed” the evaluation. Yes, and tests don’t mean everything. Therapy dog evaluations are very different and are not standardized. Some tests are more valid than others. A few therapy dog certifications are simply not all that meaningful. Some are more like obedience tests and do not measure whether the dog enjoys interacting with unfamiliar people.
People who evaluate dogs for therapy work are human beings whose interpretations of the dog’s performance varies too.
Even if the evaluator is on the ball and correctly passes a happy dog, the evaluation is just a snapshot. It reflects how the dog did in that moment. Dogs may be fine on evaluation day and miserable on actual visits. All too often when people start volunteering, the focus becomes on the work itself. People find the visits rewarding so they assume the dog is having fun too.
Your work with your therapy dog is not done after your dog has passed the evaluation. In fact, your responsibilities are just beginning. You need to tune into your dog during visits. Notice, is your dog relaxed or is he anxious? Is your dog showing signs of stress? If your dog is anxious, first kudos to you for recognizing it. Try seeing if additional breaks, shorter visits or changing the routine during the visits helps – may be a sniff/pee and treat break makes all the difference. Perhaps you need to revisit the type of therapy work your dog is doing or even the location. May be you just need to do fewer therapy dog visits or do them during a different time of day.
If your dog is happy then don’t take that for granted. Recognize what parts of the therapy dog visits your dog enjoys and keep on doing that. Keep on providing rest breaks and watching your dog to make sure he continues to enjoy the visits.
If your dog used to like doing therapy work and suddenly changed, then it’s time for an investigation. First check with your vet, make sure your dog is healthy. A skilled behavior consultant can also help you here to try to figure out what is going on.
If, in spite of your best efforts, your dog continues to remain stressed when doing therapy work, it’s time to recognize that your dog would prefer doing something different. Rest assured there are many different activities you and your dog can do that can be fun for both of you.
If you really enjoy doing volunteer work, remember you can do therapy work without your dog. Schools, hospitals, nursing homes always look for human volunteers.