Sharing your Primitive Dog With the World - Therapy Dog Training

Wishing to share your special companion with the world is admirable. I can also be selfish depending on your dog and their ability to tolerate strangers and public places. Most people get into therapy work because their dogs love people, while others get into it because they want to show off their dog. If you’re reading this you are probably in the first category but it is important to periodically self check why you are asking your dog to do this work. 

It may not seem to the untrained eye that therapy work is work of any kind. Most people observe it as socializing your dog. However therapy work is actually very taxing even for the most seasoned dog and a primitive dog’s sensitive personality can struggle at times with certain human populations or unfamiliar places. Therapy dogs are expected to work in a strange, non-dog friendly place, with emotional strangers for at least an hour. Locations can include schools, airports, nursing homes, hospice, hospitals, universities, libraries, mental health hospitals, courthouses, and are expanding into new areas all the time. 

 Saphira was a working therapy dog for over 6 years. Her specialty is therapy reading programs for children in schools and libraries, and emotional support for children in court houses.

Saphira was a working therapy dog for over 6 years. Her specialty is therapy reading programs for children in schools and libraries, and emotional support for children in court houses.

Saphira, my now retired therapy dog, worked primarily with children in schools, libraries, and courthouses. Even after visiting a location for years, a surprise use of a paper cutter, or a stack of books falling over, or a door slamming, could knock her off her game and cause anxiety at that visit and the next visit until she felt secure again. For other dogs, inappropriate affection like hugging, grabbing, or pulling on their bodies could cause stress and anxiety. If your dog is sensitive enough that these kinds of stressors could make things hard for your dog, this work might not be for them. In a therapy dog environment we are asking our dogs to interact with populations of people that are stressed, anxious, lonely, excited, or confused. All these stimulating hormones are sensed by your dog. Also these people you are visiting will touch your dog in strange ways, with closed fists, hard pats, grabbing hands, and scratches to their body where they might not appreciate being touched. 

If your dog could care less about all of these things, you’re in great shape to do therapy work with your dog. The only other major requirements are confidence around hospital or medical equipment (depending on your certifying organization) and solid obedience skills in public. While your dog may not be exposed to medical equipment while working, obedience skills are a must. Obedience skills help keep your dog focused and comfortable while you guide them through strange new places and help you set up your dog to greet people safely. If you do not have solid obedience skills you will be left physically manipulating or pulling on your dog to get them where you need them, adding stress and discomfort to the experience for your dog and sending them down the road to burnout. 

I mention burnout because that is a real thing. Many therapy dogs burnout because they become too stressed to do their work. Be it a single bad experience, or stress that built up over years, eventually therapy dogs who are not supported properly, have the wrong temperament or just did match up with the work they were assigned to, begin displaying stress signals, avoid contact with people and finally display shaking, panting and escape behaviors. It is at this point when a talented therapy dog deserves retirement, or at least a vacation and some retraining. If your dog is not enjoying therapy work, please take a moment and think about why you are doing it. If your companion isn’t happy, then it might be time to reconsider. I retired my own therapy dog when stress became a factor. At 9 years old the car trips became more and more stressful. While she loved the children she was an anxious mess in the car going to and from visits. A visit once a month was fine but more than that was overwhelming. So we make surprise visits to see sick friends or learning disabled children in our town, but otherwise she is retired to a life of Barn Hunt and couch longing. 

For dogs and owners looking to get into therapy work, start by attending a basic, and 1-2 advanced pet manners classes. If available also take a tricks class. In the meantime train your dog in every public place that allows dogs including HomeGoods and similar busy retail stores. Your dog needs to be as bombproof as possible to sustain the emotional stamina required to do therapy work and this is the best way to build it up. Therapy dog training for a Primitive Dog, will ideally take a minimum of year or classes and public practice. Besides the formal instruction, you want your dog to be able to pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen and Community Canine tests. The later is a pretty close equivalent to a therapy dog test in challenge and will ensure you and your dog as a team have the skills needed to be successful. I use the word team because it is imperative that you and your dog have the skills together to make this work. As a therapy dog team evaluator, I see too many situations where one spouse trains the dog but the other wants to do the therapy dog visits. This won’t work. Whichever human is going to be part of the therapy dog team has to be equally involved in the training.

Here are the skills necessary to be a good working therapy dog team (regardless of certifying body requirements). Your dog should be able to perform all of the skills below without a controlling harness or correction collar:

  • Sit, Down, Stay, and Come with minimum 85% reliability on the first command in strange or stressful locations. Ability to walk on a loose leash in strange and stressful locations.
  • Comfort having strangers touch all parts of the body including belly, face, butt, feet, ears, and tail. Dogs under 30lbs need to be comfortable being picked up by both owner and strangers. 
  • Comfort around traffic, busy sidewalks, crowds who are or are not interested in saying hi to your dog, rotating doors, automatic doors, shopping carts, loud music, PA systems, and sirens.
  • Confidence around walkers, wheelchairs, crutches, and canes even if you don’t plan to work in hospitals or hospice. You’d be surprised where these pop up.
  • The ability to ignore other dogs working or in residence at the place you are visiting. It is NEVER play time at a therapy dog visit. Your dog should pay only passive attention to other dogs present.
  • Ability to ignore other species present such as cats or other resident animals, as well as squirrels when working out outdoor locations.

These requirements may seem strict but this is in the best interests of the public you are serving and if these skills are missing when a situation comes up, it can be a disaster. So don’t skimp on the training.

 Katie's Finnish Spitz Jari does tricks for a huge group of school kids at an education event. Jari and Katie's Finnish Spitz Bubbles, also visit schools.

Katie's Finnish Spitz Jari does tricks for a huge group of school kids at an education event. Jari and Katie's Finnish Spitz Bubbles, also visit schools.

If therapy work is your dream, get out there and practice. Visit a new location every week. Have your dog practice being greeted by every kind of person you can find. Every age, race, gender, and personality needs to greet your dog. Polish what is still rough and above all else, support your dog through tough spots. Force will not get your dog over something stressful and it will likely fester into something that will end your dog’s career prematurely if you don’t address it with care and compassion. For great shyness contact a trainer or evaluator in your area for help. When all else fails give it a break for a few months and try again. 

If after training and practice your dog is ready for therapy work, get out there are rock it! You’re making a difference in the lives of everyone you meet. If you find your dog isn’t cut out to be a therapy dog - That’s Okay! There are dozens of things you can do with your dog. If your dog is a working or retired therapy dog, tell us about it in the Facebook Community. We’d love to hear about your work.

Quick reminder - Therapy dogs are NOT Service Dogs or Emotional Support Animals. They do not give you special access to public places where other dogs are not allowed. More information about Service Dogs and the law can be found here: https://www.psychdogpartners.org/resources/frequently-asked-questions/laws