People often ask me if I think that their dog would be a good therapy dog. More and more I find myself following it up with, “well, what do you want your dog to do?” Therapy dogs are working in increasingly diverse ways and the demands on the dog and on the owner also vary greatly. Consider the following therapy work roles:
1. Visiting a nursing home for an hour or two every other week.
2. Being read to by children in a library once a week for 20 min.
3. Being petted by travelers in a busy airport once a week for an hour.
4. Travelling to another location where there has been a crisis (such as a crime or natural disaster) to provide comfort to those affected.
5. Working with a healthcare provider in a hospital or mental health setting to help patients achieve therapeutic or rehabilitation goals.
6. Working with a victim advocate in a courtroom to support crime victims.
7. Visiting a college during exam week and being petted by university students.
While all therapy dogs need to be friendly and confident in different situations, the expectations and standards of behavior are very different for these different types of dogs. The training and behavior demands on the dogs are as varied as the roles of these dogs – not to mention the demands on the handlers/owners. For instance, the dogs in roles 4, 5 and 6, may be expected to work long hours in stressful situations, and the training demands can be as rigorous as those of a service dog trained to help a person with a disability in places of public accommodation. On the other end of the spectrum, a dog visiting college students may simply be a friendly, well behaved pet.
Just as for a service dog, selection of the right dog is absolutely critical. If a dog is fearful, easily stressed or shows aggression when anxious, trying to train that dog to do therapy work is likely to exacerbate existing behavior problems. Some dogs mature into being great therapy dogs, after they get their adolescent silliness out of their system.
Ultimately just as with any other canine activity, the first question is, “is this what your dog would enjoy doing?” It is important, for your dog’s sake, to answer this question honestly. If the answer to that question is no, that does not mean that you cannot volunteer – you can make a huge difference yourself. In fact, many therapy dog programs have a wealth of canine volunteers and not enough people willing to do the less glorious but absolutely necessary behind the scenes work that allows the program to exist.
If your goal in doing therapy work was to do something with your dog, be aware that there are many, many other activities you can do with your dog that both of you would enjoy. Not sure if therapy work would be your dog’s cup of tea or not? Contact a trainer who has experience training and working with therapy dogs to find out!