How to Raise a Therapy Dog
You’ve probably seen service dogs at stores and restaurants with their handlers. But did you know some dogs provide therapy? If you’re interested in raising a therapy dog, or if you think your dog would make a good therapy dog, here’s how to get started.
What Is a Therapy Dog?
Therapy dogs are different from service dogs used by blind, hearing impaired, or otherwise challenged people. Those dogs are trained to perform certain tasks, like helping a blind person navigate city streets, or retrieving items for someone confined to a wheelchair. Therapy dogs do their best work by simply being present.
Children who have been abused will sometimes withdraw and become sullen and uncommunicative. These same children have been observed to light up and become animated in the presence of a gentle therapy dog. Seniors who live in nursing homes, or terminally ill patients in hospice care can become depressed and give up on life. Therapy dogs can draw them out and give them a bit of joy. It’s also been proved that stroking a dog (or cat) actually lowers blood pressure and reduces stress. Therapy dogs do wonders for people who need them the most.
Good Therapy Dog Breeds
David Frei, co-host of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, is credited with having said, “There are no bad dogs, only bad owners.” While this may be true, some breeds have unfortunately been saddled with bad reputations, specifically pit bulls, Rottweilers, Dobermans, German shepherds, and a few other breeds considered aggressive or dangerous. This isn’t to say that if your dog belongs to one of those breeds he can’t be a therapy dog.
The main qualification for a therapy dog is that he be calm. This is especially important for therapy dogs that may work in environments with children or seniors. Both groups could easily be injured by a too-excited dog that jumps and knocks people down, or could be frightened by a dog that barks excessively, even if it’s just out of happy excitement. As long as your dog can be calm, and obeys commands when given, it doesn’t matter what his breed is. Just be aware that because of those poor reputations, some nursing homes or schools may have policies restricting certain breeds, and regardless of how good your dog is, you will have to respect their rules.
Therapy Dog Training
In addition to regular obedience training, and any training you may perform with your dog at home, to be certified as a therapy dog, you’ll have to take your pet through a special course. Unlike assistance dogs, whose training starts from the time they’re puppies, dogs of any age, breed, and size can become therapy dogs.
Organizations across the United States offer therapy dog training. Some local shelters, SPCA, or Humane Society chapters may also offer therapy dog training, and can even put you in touch with facilities that welcome therapy dogs. Apart from that training, it’s important to reinforce your dog’s obedience training at home. She needs to sit and stay on command, not jump on people, and especially not nip or bite, even when playing.
With positive reinforcement, training, and a lot of love, you can raise a therapy dog and see firsthand the joy he can bring to many lives, including yours.
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