Are you wondering if your dog would be a good therapy dog?
We all hear of the wonderful work that therapy dogs are doing these days in
assisted living facilities, hospitals, and nursing homes. Here are
some tips on how you and your dog can take the steps needed to qualify
for this fulfilling work, written by one of our volunteers. Both of her
dogs, Lexi and Buckeye, are therapy dogs.
The very most important quality for a therapy dog (TD) is basic temperament.
Obviously, a TD has to not be aggressive. But, also s/he needs to be comfortable
with all kinds of people (men, women, children, all races, etc.), people with atypical
behaviors (tics, spastic movements, shouting, etc.), various types of equipment
(crutches – even when they fall and make noise, wheelchairs, IV poles – including
when they beep, etc.), and with other dogs since most visits are conducted in a group.
For some dogs, this level of comfort can be trained, but for most it’s just a matter of
lots of socialization and exposure and a basic trust of the world and people. If there
is something that a dog is a bit fearful of or even just not comfortable, you can work on
conditioning a response – borrow a pair of crutches and let them hang out in your
livingroom. Everytime the dog walks by them or sniffs them give him/her a treat (or click
and treat), depending on your training style. Once the dog really loves the crutches
(walks over to them and turns to look at you for a treat), then lay them down on the floor
and do the same thing. Once the dog is comfy with that, then drop a crutch – first when
the dog is looking, so it’s not startled – and give a treat. When the dog is comfortable
with that then, “accidently” knock a crutch over when the dog is nearby (but obviously not
so close it will be hit), and again, be prepared to give treats so that the dog quickly
associates everything that a crutch can possibly do with something positive. When
you start visiting, the dog won’t instantly know how to generalize (beyond your livingroom),
but if you give a treat everytime someone on crutches walks by (or when someone
leans over to pet the dog and a crutch falls), you wlll quickly get past the crutch obstacle.
The same theory is true of all types of situations or equipment that a TD might encounter.
In addition, Therapy Dogs International, National Capital Therapy Dogs, and Fidos for
Freedom (as well as almost all TD organizations besides Pets on Wheels) require
basic obedience skills. Below are some links that will take you to the web sites for
various therapy dog organizations, so you can see what their specific requirements are,
both in terms of “testing in,” as well as the visiting, the number of visits required, who
organizes the visits, etc.
Another thing to keep in mind is that different dogs are better/worse for different types
of visits. For example, dogs who are very calm, very agile, and very aware of “their
space,” usually don't have a problem easiliy slipping between an IV pole and a hospital
bed in a crowded room to do a “paws up” on the side of a bed and be petted endlessly
(or until the patient finally stops!). These types of dogs might also do
well participating in the DEAR (Dogs Educating and Assisting Readers)
Program at Fidos, where kids and adults with reading problems practice
by reading to the dogs, who are totally non-judgemental. Whereas dogs who are more exciteable, wiggly, and
clumsy do much better at Assisted Living facilities or in the playroom on a pediatric ward
than room to room in a hospital.
Below are some Web sites you can explore for more information:
Fidos for Freedom:
National Capital Therapy Dogs:
Therapy Dogs International:
Pets on Wheels:
Functions by county.
- Montgomery County - Friendly Visitor/Pets on Wheels. 301-424-0656 (V). Provides volunteers who develop relationships with and visit isolated homebound seniors and nursing home residents.
- Fairfax County - http://www.fpow.org/
- PG County - http://www.pgpetsonwheels.org/