So we are super excited today, because yesterday Guinness passed his final test to become Therapy Dog certified with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs! Now it is just a matter of waiting on paperwork to come back before we can officially declare him a therapy dog. While we wait, I thought I would share the steps that we took, as well as the process we went through in order to get the Therapy Dog certification.
The company that I currently work for has a volunteering program called the Caring Canines, which is a group of therapy dogs that visits hospitals, school, libraries, and other local facilities. I originally became interested in joining this volunteer group and began my application process with them.
Originally, we were wanting to have Hunter be our therapy dog, considering all he ever wanted to do with us was give cuddles and hugs and love all the time. I figured he would make a great therapy dog! I did notice that he typically would take some time to warm up to strangers when they would come and visit us, but I figured that this could be fixed with a little socialization.
So I took Hunter to obedience class, and he passed with flying colors. He was really quick to learn, and he was able to focus on me and the training. We would even do exercises in class where we would walk by other people and dogs, and he would do really well with staying focused. After he was done with basic obedience, I applied for the Caring Canines Program. After speaking with the volunteer coordinator, I learned that I would have to get Hunter therapy dog trained and certified before we could start volunteering.
The first day I brought Hunter for therapy dog training/testing, our observer had some concerns about him not wanting to approach other people. It was explained that if we would be doing hospital and school visits, that people would be expecting to be able to pet and touch him. It makes sense at this point, but at the time I just wanted the certification so badly that I figured he would just naturally progress into it. We did a walk through in the hospital to get him comfortable, but he was still not willing to approach the observer. He would take a treat from her, but then would immediately back away when she tried to pet him. She said that she was willing to meet with him one more time, but unfortunately he would not be able to pass unless he was okay with strangers petting him. After thinking on it for a few days, I made the decision to withdraw Hunter from the program and just focus on getting him more socialized as well as more obedience training. I just don't think he was ready for therapy dog training just yet.
I called the observer back to let her know that maybe it just wasn't the right time for Hunter. I did also let her know about Guinness, and although he was an older dog, maybe he would be better for the job. Fortunately, she agreed to meet with him. Guinness did great! He was so friendly with everyone and let all the patients, visitors and nurses give him all the love they wanted. He even snuggled up to a few people. Thinking about it now, I'm not sure why I didn't just try to get Guinness certified from the beginning. Either way, I'm so glad I did.
Typically, therapy dog organizations are very specific as to what behaviors they look for in a therapy dog, and with good reason. It's important to ensure that therapy dogs are not aggressive, overly anxious or fearful, or overly energetic. Here are some tips to get you going:
1. Take your dog to obedience class and doggy day care
It is so important to get your dog used to being around other dogs and people. Obedience training is going to give them the skills they need to behave appropriately while in public, as well as be able to listen to you when there are a lot of distractions. Doggy day care will ensure that your dog gets lots of exposure to other dogs and humans, and then you can gauge how they will do in other public situations. If the facility tells you that your dog has some trouble with being aggressive towards other dogs or is skittish, chances are that he or she will not do well as a therapy dog.
2. Do your research!
Whatever organization you are trying to use to get your dog therapy certified, do research on their testing standards. Find out exactly what they are looking for and what it will take to get your dog up to those standards. It will save you a lot of frustration in the end if you can determine what types of behaviors the tester/observer will be looking for.
3. Be patient with your dog
Don't ever force your dog into a situation that it is not ready for or that causes excess anxiety. I think I did that with Hunter, and I ended up causing him more anxiety which in turn caused me more frustration and disappointment. Understand that each dog has his or her strengths and weaknesses, and that not every dog has the temperament to be a therapy dog. And that's completely okay! I found out that my two heelers are much better at other activities, such as going for long runs or agility. Guinness is older and not able to keep up as much anymore. Guess what? Therapy dogs don't have to exert a lot of energy to do their job. Find out where your dog's strengths are, and then build on them!
4. Be patient with the process
Getting your dog to be therapy certified is not a quick process. First, they need to demonstrate basic obedience skills. The tester/observer must be confident in your ability to correct any bad behaviors, as well as positively reinforce good behaviors. Then, your dog must be able to approach strangers in a gentle manner, as well as be okay with being touched. Finally, your dog shouldn't be displaying signs of excessive anxiety or fear when walking through the facilities.
This has definitely been an exciting journey for us and our pups! I have learned so much about the strengths that my dogs have, and how to utilize their strengths for their benefit! I am so excited for Guinness to be able to live out the rest of his years providing joy and happiness for other people, and I cannot wait to share his happiness with my clients. I will be sure to update once his certification comes through. Fingers crossed!
For more information, check out the Alliance of Therapy Dogs at: www.therapydogs.com
What are your thoughts? Do you have a certified therapy dog? Tell us your story below!