I often receive requests for therapy dog training and preparation. I am always happy to help owners prepare their dogs for this kind of work. One of the first things I discuss with my clients is whether their dog truly would enjoy being a therapy dog. Just as not every dog is going to enjoy competing in agility, working in search and rescue or work as a service dog, not every dog will enjoy working as a therapy dog.
When thinking about therapy work, it is important to keep in mind there are a wide range of therapy roles available for dogs. While all therapy dogs do need to be very friendly with people, a crisis response therapy dog traveling to a location where there has just been a tornado to support displaced residents is going to need a different level of training than a dog that is visiting a nursing home once a month for an hour or two.
All therapy dogs need to be friendly with people, happy, confident and well adjusted. While therapy work can be enjoyable, at times it also can be stressful. Behavioral problems are exacerbated by stress and these should be addressed completely before undertaking training for therapy work.
Sometimes people call me with a young puppy that they would like to train for therapy work. Trying to predict what a puppy will enjoy doing as an adult is a bit like trying to predict the future career of a human toddler. Most of the time, you will not know if your pup is a good fit for therapy work until he is mature, closer to ages 2-3 or later. Just as great parents encourage their child to try different things with an open mind, a great dog owner will objectively look at their individual puppy as he develops before deciding definitively that therapy work is the right activity. If it turns out that therapy work is not the right fit for your dog, there are countless other fun activities to choose from including agility, rally obedience, flyball, herding, lure coursing, canine scent work…and much more! Some dogs mature into being great therapy dogs when they are in their senior years. My akita-husky mix, Cupid, was far too rambunctious for therapy work when he was young, but when he turned 8, he was perfect for that role.
What if you had your heart set on doing therapy work but your dog is not really the right fit? Rest assured, you can still volunteer yourself! In fact, often times programs have many people who would like to participate with their pet and a shortage of people willing to do the behind the scenes work that makes running the therapy dog program possible. Also, most volunteer programs that run pet visitation programs also have direct face-to face support opportunities available. In fact, in my experience doing visitation with my own pets, I realized very quickly that residents truly enjoyed talking with me just as much as they enjoyed my dog’s visit.
Interested in learning more? Here is a short list of some information on therapy dog programs and certifications:
Some Northern Virginia Therapy Dog Programs:
Washington DC Therapy Dog Program: