A therapy dog is specially trained to provide comfort to people who are ill, confined to an institution, or dealing with learning disabilities, behavioral issues or other stressful conditions. The dog’s primary duty is to be an all-around “good dog” who allows herself to be handled —sometimes clumsily—by strangers.
Any size or breed of dog, including mixed breeds, can be therapy dogs. The only requirements are a stable, easygoing temperament and excellent training that enriches your relationship with your dog and makes her a better-behaved companion for all social situations. The real gift is the heartfelt satisfaction you will feel when you see the joy your canine pal can bring to people in need.
Does your dog have the right stuff?
Therapy Dogs International believes that a therapy dog is born, not made. Training is required, of course, but a therapy dog has to have the right stuff. She must be smart, patient, relaxed, friendly and confident. She should enjoy human contact and handling from unfamiliar children and adults, even if they approach her awkwardly.
You might start by asking yourself how your dog behaves with toddlers. Is she tolerant as the stumbling two-year old pulls on her ears or does she growl? How does your dog react to wheelchairs and other walking aids? If a wheelchair were to bump your dog, would she simply step out of the way or would she snap at the chair? Therapy dogs should have “low reactivity,” meaning that they react defensively only in an extremely threatening situation.
If you feel like your dog has the right stuff, call Therapy Dogs International or look up a therapy dog organization in your area on www.therapydogorganizations.net. Training usually begins with comprehensive obedience work and the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test. After this, you and your dog will take a course that introduces you to different kinds of medical equipment and environments and “body desensitizing” techniques that train your dog to be handled without inducing a stress reaction. Lastly, as “extra credit,” you might want to take a “tricks” class.
Therapy Dogs International
Volunteer organization that regulates tests and registers therapy dogs and their
volunteer handlers for nursing homes, hospitals and other institutions .
Therapy Dog Organizations
State-by-state lists of organizations related to therapy dog training and service.
American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Class
Describes the training a dog needs to pass the Canine Good Citizen test.
Dogs Are Good Medicine
Smoky, a Yorkshire terrier rescued on a World War II battlefield by Corporal William Wynne, was the world’s first official therapy dog. Wynne took Smoky along on combat missions, during which she entertained and comforted the troops. When Wynne was hospitalized with illness, his friends brought Smoky to the hospital to cheer him up. Commanding officer Dr. Charles Mayo (of the Mayo Clinic) gave Smoky permission to go on rounds in the hospital, and Smoky continued her work as “the first therapy dog” for 12 years.
BELINDA RECIO received the 2004 United States Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals and Society.