Therapy Dogs – Born or Made?

As many of you know I recently presented a seminar on animal assisted therapy in Naples Florida. (Yes, it’ll be out as a DVD later this winter. Happy Dance!) One of the motivations for doing the seminar was the number of clients I had who wanted me to help them prepare their dog for therapy work. Sometimes it was like swimming downstream on a warm, cozy river. Their dog was a perfect fit and ended up doing wonderful work in the community. Other times… well,  it was reminiscent of trying to paddle up a cold, frothy waterfall. The fact is, therapy work can be hard work, and it takes a special kind of dog to be both good at it and to enjoy it. The directors of AAA and AAT (AAActivities and AATherapy) will tell you that one of their greatest challenges is working with people who want to volunteer but whose dogs just don’t qualify. Here’s a summary of the characteristics of a good therapy dog prospect, in hopes it will be helpful for those who are interested in doing this wonderful work:

Affiliative: This seems like a no-brainer, but the fact is that many dogs are presented for therapy work who really don’t like strangers all that much. They love their owners and good friends, but aren’t all that interested in other people. Good therapy dogs need to be the kind of dogs who ADORE people, all people, and want nothing more than to connect with them. It is, after all, the emotional connection that is often the therapeutic part of AAA and AAT.  It seems to me that dogs sort into 4 categories: 1) adore people, care little for other dogs, 2) adore dogs, care little for unfamiliar people, 3) adore members of both species and are thrilled to meet new ones and 4) adore neither dogs or people, except maybe their owner. Needless to say, only categories 1 and 3 are good therapy prospects.

Physically Calm: Many of the dogs who think all people hung the moon regrettably don’t fit into this category. Leaping, licking, pawing and body slamming just don’t work in senior centers and hospitals. This is why so many dogs don’t qualify when they are young, but could be great prospects when they are older. I wrote a chapter with Aubrey Fine for his great book The Handbook of Animal Assisted Therapy, and we had a long discussion about how many dogs would be GREAT for therapy work when they are six. Or eight. Or ten, but their owners get them evaluated at the age of two, the dogs are not “passed” and their owners never try again.

Psychologically Sound and Non-reactive: It doesn’t matter how much training or conditioning you do, therapy dogs need a certain level of rock solid soundness to be good prospects. Of course, the context does matter: some dogs are great in senior centers but are uncomfortable around children and would be disasters in a children’s hospital. It’s important to remember that AAA and AAT include a vast range of experiences, so every dog must be evaluated based on what they are going to be doing.  But it’s still essential to keep in mind that although your job is in part to protect your dog, once you are inside a facility you will have limited control over what happens. And what can happen (someone grabbing your dog, weird noisy medical equipment coming on, a medical crisis that results in tremendous chaos) is sometimes enough to terrify a sensitive dog.

Included in this category, although albeit somewhat different conceptually, is the state of being “emotionally mature” or able to handle frustration and deal with the world with a calm, measured demeanor. Again, just as in people, sometimes this takes several years to master.

Ridiculously clean and healthy: Unless you work in health care facilities it is easy to forget how differently sanitation needs to be handled in facilities and hospitals than it does in your own home. Pet Pals here in Madison, which organizes visits to the Children’s Hospital through the UW Vet School, requires that all dogs in the program go through extensive veterinary evaluations twice a year. This includes an entire day of testing for a vast range of diseases, from salmonella to MRSA. In this case the dogs are visiting children who are often immune compromised, and so their requirements are more stringent than some, but any facility, from a senior center to a hospital, is a very, very different place than your home. Germs love the kind of places that therapy dogs go to visit, and they can move around like wild-fire within very vulnerable populations.

Aware of their Job? This is gravy, pure gravy, but the fact is that some dogs do more than happily sit with strangers or participate in structured therapy treatment plans, as beneficial as that can be to some people. These dogs seem to sense why they are there, and seek out people who are especially needy, and make an emotional connection with them that changes their life. These connections happen, and hearing about them is enough to make you all gooey-eyed. Special stuff indeed.

I’ll leave the training and evaluations required to be a registered therapy team for another blog, but I thought it’d be interesting to ask all of you to add to this list–specifically, what type of personality do you think a therapy dog needs to be successful? If you’ve either had a working AAA or AAT dog, or been the beneficiary of one, I’d love to hear what criteria you’d put on the list. FYI, I’ll write another time about what the handler at the other end of the leash needs (a list too often ignored!), and some good books for people interested in getting involved, but right now I’d like to think about the dogs themselves. Aside from training for specific cues and conditioning to things like medical equipment, what traits do you think good therapy dogs need?

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: It was eight below (Fahrenheit) when I got up yesterday morning, three below today. I think the high is expected to be around eight or so, and we’re expecting 2 to 7 inches of snow tomorrow (2 to 7? that’s a big difference!).  I wish I didn’t have to drive to town to get ready to start teaching at the university (“The Biology and Philosophy of Human/Animal Relationships”), but still it’ll be sort of fun to get the snow. If it had been snowing all winter I’d be tired of it, but we’ve hardly had any winter at all til now, so it feels sort of good in some strange, possibly masochistic kind of way.

The great news is that Tootsie, who began her life here explaining to me that her paws did not participate in wet or cold, now trots happily outside in the worst of weather, does her business and then runs, ears flapping and tongue lolling, back into the garage. When we got her as a puppy mill dog she understandably had no concept of going outside and eliminating on cue right away, and then going right back in if the weather was inclement. She’d stand at the end of the garage and look plaintive and miserable, but refuse to go out. And even in great weather, once out she’d sniff and sniff and sniff and sniff… you get the idea.  What a great reminder of how handy it is to put peeing and pooping on cue.

And now you should see her! Out she runs, does her business and then runs back in… while Willie stays outside and looks at me like “WHAT? Go back inside now? Whatever for?” So Tootsie goes back inside and Willie and I play outside for awhile. I should tell you though that yesterday there was one time, during the coldest part of the morning, when she did refuse to go out. But she’d been outside to pee recently, and I took it as “Truly, I don’t have to go at all, and it’s really, really cold. Would it work for you if I stayed inside this time?” And indeed it did. Honor your dog, right? The next time I took her out her bladder was fuller, and out she went, did her business and ran to me for her treat. Now, I just have to work on her barking if she sees me and Willie outside through the window… One thing at a time!

Willie is good good good. His shoulder seems good (almost afraid to write that) and he’s loving everyone he meets lately. He still isn’t buddies with Tootsie. They STILL ignore each other, it’s a bit strange sometimes, but he is very tolerant of her and the only sign of problems I see is when I come home she has taken over our greeting rituals. Rather than being all over me, Willie runs to get a toy and lets her get the first attention. I’m not liking that, I think he is a bit frustrated, but doesn’t like competing with Tootsie for attention, and unwilling to get into any conflict about it… I’ll be working on that in the near future too. Never a dull moment with dogs, hey?

Why do I live in a place that can be colder in the winter than the inside of your freezer? Here’s the reason: Sunrise yesterday.  Eight below. And a sky simply too beautiful for words…



  1. says

    In a word, yes. Therapy dogs are both born and made in my opinion. Some of both would be another answer. I have had a therapy dog for 8 years now and am actively working with a young dog to fill some mighty big shoes. It’s an amazing journey and one I am glad I am on. I agree with everything in your post. And I also have seen miracles happen where therapy dogs are concerned. If I could, working with my therapy dog and other people and their therapy dogs would be my full-time job. It means that much to me. Thank you for a great post!

  2. Nancy says

    I have a 6 yr old terrier mix and we have been participating in animal assisted therapy work for about a year and a half now. Although Henley is a very special dog…he sort of adjusts to the situation at hand, be it agility, flyball or therapy work I believe it also depends on the therapy group you are working with. The group we belong to in Illinois has a wide variety of programs so it allows you and your dog to find one that is really a good fit…be it seniors, children with special needs, adults with special needs, hospitals, etc.

  3. Cheri Burger says

    I have the unique position of being the human part of a Pet Therapy Team, and an instructor that helps prepare other dog/handler teams to take their Therapy test.
    I agree that Therapy dogs are both born and made. You can train and train a dog that just isn’t suited. Perhaps they can do all the obedience skills required, but are too nervous, too excited, or just don’t like it. And, there are probably loads of dogs that would be terrific but aren’t trained so will never get the opportunity.
    I see dogs that would be terrific, but their owners, while well meaning, do not have the handling skills, or temperament needed. It is a team, after all.
    My dog is a great Therapy dog, but after 2 years, he finally made me see that he really doesn’t like going into large institutional type buildings. He is great with people, but doesn’t care to be startled. (doesn’t have a big reaction, freezes and trembles, poor guy) So, I am searching for a better environment for him. Lesson learned? Get out of MY ego, and do what is right by my loving, gentle, Jindo (yes, a Jindo!)

  4. kelli says

    The sad thing for me is that my pit mix would not even be allowed to be a therapy dog in my state due to his breed. He is still young at age 2, but has since my adopting and working with him, shown a deep understanding for people with issues or health problems. He can be quite the wiggle butt, but when around someone in a wheel chair, unsteady on their feet, etc. He is a totally different dog. He’s actually led an elderly gentleman who was quite out of sorts when hiking, and grabbed onto his back pack harness to keep from falling. It didn’t even phase my boy. He’s been manhandled by autistic children, etc. He adores people, and knows when he’s needed. The only sad thing is again, he would not qualify in my state. His only issue is toward reactive dogs, but neutral dogs…he is also neutral which would make him a perfect candidate for such work. It truly is a pity… though he does love going to visit my grandfather in the nursing home as a “pet visitor”. He can’t say hi to anyone besides my grandpa, but he really does enjoy their special time.

  5. says

    Wonderful post Patricia! I am the owner of therapy Rottweiler and a director of a rescue that includes it’s own therapy dog group (comprised entirely of Rottweilers and Pit Bulls) that works with two local organizations for youth in crisis.

    I get asked a lot about what kind of training a dog needs and my answer is always the same…you can train the obedience but the “it” factor has to be born in the dog.

    Within your list I think the two key points are:

    1. A genuine love of people – my Rottie girl has this in spades…every person he meets is her next best friend.

    2. Enjoy the Work – Jana LOVES when we go to visit the kids. She has her “pretty” collar that we put on for visits…just the act of pulling that out makes her dance. And she seems to have a knack for finding the kid who needs her the most that night and by the end of the evening they’re convinced that “Jana liked them best” :)

  6. e knight says

    This is a question I feel passionate about. Therapy dogs are BORN. The one element too many people ignore is how HARD this work is for dogs…they have to be kept (and keep themselves) under control at all times, tolerate all kinds of handling in unfamiliar situations, AND be loving. If they don’t LIKE doing this, then they are not therapy material.
    A lot of dogs will work to please their owners and be stoic —.
    To complicate things further, WAY too many people involved in this work don’t know how to read their own dogs….what they do when they are stressed, or nervous or uncomfortable or worn out.
    I live with a collie who was born for this work….she is an obedience washout….but LOVES this work…her idea of heaven is walking around meeting and greeting as many new people as possible because she just loves people cooing over her. But even she has a threshold of about 45 minutes….before she gets tired and it’s time to stop or take a break.
    I think a therapy dog is born with a very stable, calm, temperament, enjoys physical contact AND has a great love for all kinds of people. Our jobs as handlers is to be advocates for our dogs as they do this work and this means learning to read them (thank you Patricia McConnell!!!) and being honest about who our dogs really are.

  7. Vickie says

    Thank you for bringing attention to AAT/AAA!!! I tend to think that even in as much work as one can do with socialization (and socialization and more socialization) and training, there does seem to be in innate quality that is born into a dog that makes a good therapy dog. I’ve been in pet therapy and training therapy dogs for ten years and I’ve seen people work extremley hard to try to “make” their dog a therapy dog–they end up with a miserable (albeit compliant and obedient) partner; even to the point of one dog flat out vomiting from stress, another defecating in stress. I’ve also seen shelter dogs that right out of the humane society could be stellar at visiting patients. My two older goldens are Delta Society registered dogs and demonstrated a natural desire to want to visit and interact with others and be loved and petted, whereas my other golden who is now 12 months (same training, socialization, etc) has in no uncertain terms let me know she is going to be a nosework champ and could care less about visiting the nursing home or hospital with her older brother and sister. Anyway, that’s my two cents for what its worth. =)

  8. Kat says

    Therapy dogs are born with the natural talent and “made” through training and practice. Ranger is a registered therapy dog. It wasn’t my plan when we adopted him, I was just looking for a family pet, but it soon became clear that this is the job he was born to do. Lots and lots and lots of training to create the manners he needs to do his job but the personality and talent for the work were born in him. He genuinely loves all people and they love him. Even people who are nervous about dogs, especially big dogs (he’s 90 lbs) want to interact with him. If I could bottle whatever it is he has and sell it I could keep the dogs in food for a long long time.

    We visit a local nursing home with a group and it fascinates me to see the different ways the dogs approach the job. Some dogs are just a happy go lucky laid back, “sure if this is what you want me to do that’s cool” kind of dogs. Some are very obedient dogs who enjoys the petting but need to be cued to interact. And some of them are like Ranger and this is what they live for and they seem to know who needs them most and to seek out those people. It never ceases to amaze me that Ranger’s favorite place when we visit is the dementia ward. This is hard for me and I find it disturbing when a resident meets him for the very first time six times in a visit. He’s every bit as enthusiastic about meeting the resident for the first time all six times it happens. He doesn’t care if they call him by the name of some long gone companion or can’t find words or are unpredictable they’re people who need him and he delights in their company.

    One episode stands out illustrating how much difference contact with a dog can make. We were visiting and one resident was sitting in her gerry chair with her head thrown back, mouth hanging slack and looking for all the world like an empty shell with no one home. Staff assured us that she loved dogs so I asked Ranger to sit by her chair and staff placed her hand on his back. Gradually her mouth began to curl up in a smile. Whatever internal landscape she was trapped in Ranger was able to reach her just by being there.

  9. Mary says

    How interesting! Your description reminded me of my own pet in two ways: the category of dogs that love every.single.person they’ve ever met but are not super interested in other dogs. And, alas, of the dog that loves people but has trouble recalling not to jump up on them or cover them in exuberant licks. It’s a nice reminder that even if he never grows to love the off leash dogs in my neighborhood (really??? a poodle? you have to bark and lunge on the leash like *they* are the four horsemen of the canine apocalypse?), continually working hard to reinforce his manners with people helps him get more of those interactions he adores.

  10. says

    My dog and I worked in local public schools with special needs kids for four years. Although Middle School was not my choice, it was where my dog liked to be and since she was doing all the work that’s where we were. My dog was written into the IEP’s for the kids and her main job was to have the kids focus on her for 45 minutes. If they ignored her she would make them hold her paw. She had a few things that she would avoid at home like being brushed, having her picture taken or catching a ball. At school, she enjoyed having the kids brush her for the entire time, loved pictures being taken, looking right at the camera and smiling. She would take her ball to one child, back up and wait for them to throw it then catch it and take it to the next child. There were so many other things that she did and I never taught her any of them. My dog died just before her 10th. Birthday. She shared some very magical moments with me and I was also wittness to many other dogs and their abilities to work with special needs kids. Do I think that dogs are born for this ? Yes. I’ve seen too many who “just do things ” on their own to believe that it entirely a result of our training. My dog was a Rottweiler and won the hearts of lots of adults when she ” worked ” with the kids. There are lots of avenues for Therapy work, many levels and I encourage those interested to pursue it and perhaps their dog will find it’s notch.

  11. says

    In our organization we emphasize (1) knowing/reading your dog; (2) stewarding your dog; (3) assessing what situations/populations your dog enjoys and what situations/people they enjoy less, and we try very hard to help people with unsuitable dogs understand that they and/or their dogs are not failures, just not meant for this career. We try very hard to do good jobs of ‘matching’… dogs, owners, and ‘clients’ and feel that this is critical to good canine-assisted therapy. It would be wonderful if all therapy dogs could do and enjoy all therapy work but we feel if we restricted certification and participation to just those dogs, many potential ‘clients’ would miss out and many wonderful dogs and owners would be left out. So we work hard at making sure all our teams look for their own niche and emphasize at all times the importance of the dogs loving what they do. So far, everyone really seems to ‘get it’ and so we have more dogs out there working, and more of them happy. We try to define dog teams as “broad spectrum” vs. “narrow spectrum” which helps us when we get requests for teams and/or programs. We also have a process of ‘shadowing’ that allows owners to visit a program in action to see if they think it would be a good placement for them AND their dog. If so, they then intern with their dog and a veteran mentor. Then the mentor and the owner discuss what they observed and try to come up with a decision that is accurate in terms of the dog’s likes as well as the owner’s. So far it is working wonderfully and we get nothing but thanks from new teams.

    Personally, my own dog is what we call a “narrow spectrum” therapy dog… he absolutely loves little children when he can be one on one with them in a quiet place, so he has done great work in counseling programs (with therapists) and also in some other programs we run where the situation works. But I know him well enough and love him well enough to know that much of therapy work is too stressful for him. He is a stoic without an ounce of aggression, and will tolerate anything I’ve ever thrown in into, but it is not fun for him so why would I want to do that to him? We have also noticed that very young dogs can change and older dogs can need retirement, so it is important to watch them throughout their working lives and make changes as needed.

  12. says

    A great blog, as always! I would agree heartily with your points. Training only gets you so far, and some dogs simply are not cut out for therapy work, or they are not interested or are stressed by it. I have been working on standards, practices, and a specialized credential for Animal Assisted Play Therapy, which combines AAT with play therapy (psychotherapy) for children, teens, and families. One of our principles is that the dogs have to enjoy it, not just tolerate it. We can also use dogs who are a little more energetic as our work involves lots of play interactions, but the energy does have to be under control. (If anyone is interested, I do have a Facebook group called Animal Assisted Play Therapy which is very multidisciplinary, and we’ve been talking about this topic as well. It’s a closed group but I’ll accept anyone ‘legitimate’ who asks to join.)

    I am working on the credential for AAPT right now (and just for AAPT as it’s a bit different from traditional AAT/AAA work), and hoping to include Suzanne Clothier’s CARAT and RAT assessments as part of that. My ideas are still forming, after being involved in the integration of these two fields for about 8 years now, so would be very happy to kick ideas around with you at any time offline. I think you should have my email with this post, or I can be contacted through my website. I appreciate all that you do for dogs – we definitely need to be looking out for their welfare in any work we do with them, including AAT and AAA!!

  13. Beth with the Corgis says

    I think that if you want to do therapy work, you start with a dog with a confident, outgoing personality, and then socialize, socialize, socialize.

    Both of mine are Therapy Dogs (TDI), though I don’t do very much active work with them. I will preface by saying that Corgis are exactly the wrong size to be really good therapy dogs. They are too short to be easily reached from a wheel chair, too heavy to sit on a lap. They would be great with kids but I work normal business hours, which doesn’t leave very many opportunities to do work in schools. They’d also both be good with developmentally challenged adults, but having had two bad experiences where my dogs were grabbed and the person would not let go, I won’t risk it personally.

    I must say that for us, passing certification was not that tough, because my dogs were born with the right personality (and were socialized as little puppies). Jack we had as a puppy. I live by a busy park and so asked for a puppy who would be ok with all manner of activity, and that’s what I got. He adores other dogs and loves to meet people. I have dubbed him “The Mayor.” His idea of a greeting is to sit on people’s feet. He will stand on his hind legs to lick faces if people bend down, but doesn’t leap at them. He ignores people who ignore him and approaches people who smile at him or talk to him, which means he is not overwhelmed by the activity at a nursing home, since he’s used to ignoring people in crowds unless they pay active attention to him. He will actually lie down and put his chin on the floor in the day-room of the nursing home, with a couple dozen people in wheel chairs and a half-dozen dogs and handlers milling about. He has two down-sides (other than size) as a therapy dog: one is he sees therapy work as a “job” to be approached with typical Corgi work-ethic. “Are we going to see that person? How about that one? Shall we go to the rooms? Is someone in this room? How about that room? Back to the day room?” Honestly he makes ME tired with the energy he puts into it. The other downside is I never totally trust him not to potty: he’s one of those dogs who needs to poop whenever he gets excited (long walks in new places, visits, etc). And while he is 100% housebroken at home, he is not opposed to defecating in a big open space inside. So that means I need to be vigilant and run him outside every 15 minutes or so for a potty break, just to be sure. He loves it, however, and once he realizes we are leaving and not just potty-breaking, he will stop and plant his little feet and look longingly back towards the entrance door, plainly saying “But the people are in THERE. Where are we going?” A stunt he also pulls when we are on a walk and run into people or dogs we know— the more the merrier, as far as he’s concerned, and he does not want to leave a group.

    Maddie came to us as an adult. She’s a retired show dog who lived inside as a pet with run of the house and was the dog that her breeder/owner/handler would most often take on outings because so little bothers her. She is fairly reserved with strangers but infinitely tolerant of anything (from people; she’s not as tolerant of other dogs as Jack is). She’s that dog that sighs and lays flat out on her belly on the vet’s exam table, chin on the table, waiting patiently for the next stage of the exam. She too is capable of ignoring just about everyone in a large gathering, but will go for greetings if someone says her name or if I offer her for petting. She’s less intense than Jack, and so is the easier one for me to handle. I find visits with her much more relaxing than visits with Jack. However, while she is perfectly relaxed and enjoys her time out with me, she does not seem to find visiting as rewarding as Jack does. It neither bothers her nor especially pleases her to meet-and-greet.

    I have often thought— and this is never asked for of the general public, only of dog trainers— that Jack would be a great therapy dog for other dogs. He reads them so well. I use him as my source if I’m unsure if another dogs leaping and barking is excitement or anger/frustration/aggression. He won’t go within a dozen yards of a dog-aggressive dog if he can help it; they don’t even have to make a move, just posture. He’s wonderful with nervous dogs. I once watched him with a German Shepherd who was afraid of other dogs. He’d approach her to sniff, she’d back up. He’d lay down. She’d come to him, he’d let her sniff. He’d go to sniff her, she’d back up, he’d lay down. This went on for several minutes until the other dog relaxed and started gently wagging at him and then they were friends. I have regularly seen other dogs interact nicely with Jack when their owners said they were iffy with other dogs. So if anyone needs a dog to help socialize their dog, we’d be happy to volunteer!

  14. Wendy says

    I love Rachel’s comment that every person her dog meets is his “new best friend”! That is how I often describe my own dog. Mollie is almost 2-1/2 and we’ve been doing therapy work for almost a year. We just passed the Reading Buddies program with our group so that we can begin working in the literacy program with children (my goal from the beginning). We also work with the elderly. As to the question, I think that there is an special inborn quality in dogs and people (and therapy cats — we have those, too!) that just makes it easy and fun for the animal to work with people and other animals. My dog’s favorite thing in life seems to be making new friends, human, canine, feline…okay, maybe not so “friendly” with squirrels!! That being said, I still at times “desensitize” my dog to various things (a blowing trash bag, the guy next door blowing leaves, etc. ). Half my friends are “dog” friends” and trainers and they all have wonderful dogs but many of them would not be happy as a therapy dog – shy, afraid of kids, etc.

  15. Kerry M. says

    Kelli, That’s a bummer about the pit discrimination in your state. Is that a state law thing or something to do with the therapy groups in your area? It’s a shame that they end up losing good dogs when they don’t evaluate the dog on his or her own behaviors.

  16. Beth with the Corgis says

    I wanted to add an anecdote. When I knew I’d be taking Jack for therapy dog training, but had not yet done so (I waited til he was nearly two) we were at a pet store one day and a woman was checking out squeaky toys for her (absent) dog. Jack heard the squeak and went to investigate. This woman did something I can’t believe a dog owner would ever do: she squeaked the toy at him and held it out to him. He went to take it oh-so-gently in his mouth (like many dogs, he loves nothing more than stuffed squeaky toys), and she pulled it away and laughed.

    Normally I protect my dogs from any bad treatment, but I knew that not everyone he would visit as a therapy dog would behave appropriately, so I was curious to see what he’d do. Again she squeaked the toy and handed it to him, again he went to take it, and again she pulled it away. She squeaked it a third time… and he turned around and walked away. I was so proud, but it also showed me something that was valuable to me. We can’t judge how our dogs will react to others by how they react to us. Some dogs allow their owners to do anything but will react to a stranger. Others are more tolerant of those they don’t know.

    Mine are both the opposite at home of how they are out and about. Jack loves to get pets and cuddles from non-household members but rarely wants to be petted at home and never cuddles. Maddie is reserved with strangers and is the biggest cuddler at home.

    If I loom over Jack he scuttles backwards and looks at me like “What the HECK!?” If strangers loom over Jack, he will lick their faces. And little kids can go so far as to wrap their arms around his neck and squeeze, something he’d never appreciate from me or my husband.

    So my one piece of advice for those interested in therapy work is this: be mindful of how your dog reacts when other people make sudden moves, grab at him unexpectedly, try to touch his mouth or his feet or his ears. He might hate that from you and be fine with others; he may let you do anything but be resentful of handling by strangers.

  17. Kathy says

    Thank you for covering the topic of animal assisted therapy! I feel that therapy dogs are born with the personality traits necessary to perform this heartwarming and healing work. I believe that the most important factor is that the dog thoroughly enoys it. My dog has been going on weekly visits for the past 4 years at a hospital and hospice and I’m frequently asked how I trained her so well. Other than basic obedience training I can’t take any credit because she really performs the therapy on her own and I take my cues from her. As we walk her tail is swaying from side to side and she looks like a happy dog. I observed a dog who is new to the program and even though he was very obedient, his tail was between his legs as he was going down the hall and the poor little guy looked miserable. I think a good therapy dog is gentle or “polite” and it is important that they are friendly or nonreactive to other dogs, because we frequently meet other teams who are visiting or the patients may be having visits from their own pets. I look forward to your posts on advice to handlers.

  18. tracy says

    Good thing neither of my dogs have any of these characteristics, ’cause I just realized that I don’t have any of those characteristics either!

    I think there are a lot of people out there like me with good intentions and think it would be cool to help people but sometimes “help” is better in the form of writing a check or supplying a good home for a homeless dog.

  19. Amy W. says

    I think they are born and then refined with training.

    Also, great point about the dog maybe not being mature enough for therapy work until they are a little older.

  20. says

    Lacking experience (and training!) and possessing only of “book and blog” knowledge, I’d say that I feel the bulk of this is nature: a truly good therapy (or service) dog is born. Some are totally naturals, and others have some qualities that can be honed well with training.

    My Doberman, Elka, would not be a good therapy dog, or at least not the “calm visit inside” sort. She can be rather frenetic, and can be pushy. On the other hand, she is freaky-intuitive regarding the strengths and weaknesses of people. With me, she will all out play tug of war, “vicious” play growling, whipping her head around, feet planted, etc. But she can scale that back, all on her own (I don’t know how I would have taught her) and play tug with my spindly 12 year old cousin, or our friend’s 2 year old child. Every time she “wins”, she pushes the toy back into the person’s hand.

    We also met a group of developmentally disabled kids at the park once, and she happily high-fived with them, and picked which hand the treat was in, and tolerated all kinds of crowding and petting without any signs of stress, tongue flick, whale eye, etc. (if she had, we would have left immediately, but she craves kids).

    These are not, obviously, calm and therapeutic sorts of abilities. Perhaps as Occupational Therapy? 😉 Or maybe she’d be a good “Read to Me” dog.

  21. Susan Mann says

    When I got my first dog, Pepper, I had plans to use him as a therapy dog, and he would have been great at it- but not enjoyed it. He was incredibly obedient, very into me, would play fetch with anyone, and was never a problem with other people or dogs. But- he wasn’t into other people, or dogs for that matter, other than a few long term friends (of both species.) Since then, I haven’t ever really tested my other dogs, but have done a bit of informal therapy dog work with several. Scout would never have passed any tests, but absolutely adored people and loved just being with them. I did take him into a nursing home a number of times, and have the goose-bump story many therapy dog people have, where someone who has been closed off, not talking, started opening up and talking about the dogs he had as a child. Brodie and Kyp! both adore people, Brodie isn’t that fond of other dogs, and both did some “work” with 2 autistic kids I did some extensive volunteer work with, and both were great at it. Haven’t really done anything with Arie.

  22. says

    I had 7 of my own dogs registered through Therapy Dogs, Inc. since 1992 and for a few years I was an evaluator for that organization. Of the 7, I would say that 2 were excellent.. had a presence and a connection with people that can’t be taught to a dog. Another one was in it for the fun and was happy to do the visits but there wasn’t the connection that I saw with the other 2. The other 4, had I not had others to choose from, would have been just fine because they were certified but I believe they were either doing it for me or it was just almost like an obedience exercise for them.

    So I believe that yes, a therapy dog can be made, they can understand what to do and proceed to do it – like a job – but the best therapy dogs in my opinion are not made but rather born with the personality to excel at the work. I think it’s like when I took some dogs (GSDs) to be evaluated for herding… there was one who was a sheep chaser, another who appeared to be thinking “which shall it be the sheep or the butterfly”, another who looked like she was thinking “if I bounce and do it double time will they move faster”, and then there was the one who I’m sure was thinking “oh.. sheep.. I got it.. no problem” – and we stood back and watched in awe a 10 month old do something that just came naturally to her.

    Here’s my post from last year on my blog when I decided to move on after 19 years from the therapy dog world.

    And yes, I love Wisconsin also, but I too am looking at -8 degrees … where is that sunrise… :)

  23. says

    I definitely had a One, and my biggest regret is that I didn’t pursue therapy work with her before her untimely death at age 8 from cancer. She was a Golden, and just before she turned 2 I had her evaluated. She flunked, as I knew she would, but later, I took her to my mother’s nursing home. I snuck her in at night (it was allowed) when I knew most of the residents would be in bed, but I was amazed at the change that came over her. She went up to my mother’s bedridden roommate and instead of jumping on the bed or putting her paws there, as I expected (and was ready to pull her back!) she lay her head on the bed and gazed at the woman lovingly. After that I took her several more times and she was beautifully behaved each time. (Up until she was three, when we moved overseas.) She really seemed to sense who was delicate, even outside the nursing home environment.

    In fact, as I write this, my regret lessens a little–there were so many people she met on our walks, little old ladies, reclusive old men, who she really connected with (and made them feel as if THEY were special!). I still miss her terribly, two years after she died. My current dog, a Golden/BC mix, is definitely a number Four. He’ll never be a therapy dog; he’s much too nervous around new people. But he adores me, and anyone else who is home with him, as if he’s learned to bond with the one who’s there. (Poor pup was neglected by a previous owner who was dying of cancer.)

  24. says

    I think therapy dogs are mostly born, but some dogs, with care and attention, get better, and some other dogs just have to wait untill they’re older. But it can go the other way, also. I have two dogs. One mini schnauzer mix, who was as social as a dog could be. Happy but calm, she adored people. But as she aged, she began to ignore them, and now is a “just my close friends” kind of girl. The same with other dogs. I have always used my dogs in therapy with other dogs, and she would be playing with any dog in just seconds. Now se ignores them.
    My lab went just the other way. I adopted him when he was a year old, nervous, jumpy, shy. But with age, his DNA came out, and now is a gentleman, a huge teddy bear, that just wants to be petted by people, or have fun with other dogs. Latest picture of him “therapyzing” an anxious chihuaha:
    (I have some photos of him with children, he adooores them).
    So, I think we have to treat every dog as a changable personality, and adjust to it.

  25. FJM says

    Beth with the Corgis – I have often thought that a local group of well-socialised dogs suitable to help socialise puppies would be a hugely beneficial resource – I wish someone would set up an organisation! Just imagine being able to introduce your pup to dogs of every different shape and size, and know she was only going to have good experiences. And to have a group capable of countering any bad vibes she may have already picked up – Wonderful!

    Therapy dogs – I plan to certify Sophy with PAT (Pets as Therapy – the UK therapy organisation) this year, not because it is something I particularly want to do, but because she does. My sister has an elderly neighbour who loves both my dogs, and is now in a nursing home, and visit him whenever we can. Poppy is OK, but really only likes the men. Sophy actually pulls on the leash to get there – this from a dog that never pulls -and then tries to take me through every open door in case there is someone in there who would like to meet her. She is a Papillon, so exactly the right size to sit on a lap, and seems to know exactly what to do by instinct. Born or made? I would love to be able to take the credit, but I think my part was not to spoil the nature she was born with – some dog seem to be born good, and Sophy is one of them.

  26. says

    The question about a dog being born or trained for therapy work has been one I have thought about for years. From the first time I brought dogs into my life, (late, I might add, I was in my late 40’s) I always wanted to do therapy work. Of course the fact that my chosen breed are Dalmatians has not made that the easiest task. They are a fun breed but also a rather exuberant lot. Each time I would do all of the training required and pass the tests but there always seemed to be something that prevented doing therapy work. I am now wondering if I had let some of those dogs get a bit older before trying if maybe I would have been more successful with them. Fast forward–I now have a six year old male Dalmatian who is a wonderful therapy dog. He seems to sense when people need him most. It always amazes me to wacth him as he works a room full of old folks. On a recent visit a new resident was brought in to our meeting area. I was told that she was reluctant to join us because she is blind and would not be able to see what was going on. They helped her get seated on a couch and I asked her if she would like to meet the dog. As I walked him near the couch so she could maybe touch him, he ever so gently got up on the couch next to her. He turned and sat next to her, gently wiggled his hip into her hip. She petted him over his entire body as I described to her what he looked like. She then said, “today I can see, and what I see is a magnificent animal”. I and the staff were a teary eyed. I don’t think what I saw that morning was trained. I believe he has an amazing sense of what is needed.

  27. Karen says

    I also agree with born not trained, my late GSDx passed the TDI test very easily at the age of 12, the only training we did was brush up on loose leash walking. For 2 years we did a kids reading program, my choice as she loved kids and we do not have them. Everyone wanted her for their program she just gave of the right type of vibe, and adored all people.
    Now I have 2 border collies, I know I could train both of them to pass the test, BUT: the older one adores people, at agility trials socializing his his favorite activity, he looks like the perfect candidate, but he has been snippy if some one strange grabs him, due to the type of work we can not risk it, but my husband I are convinced he would adore nursing home visits. My younger one is a perfect gentleman, he would do it for me but not groove on it like my old lady did, when he is older I am going to decide if it is something he would enjoy.

  28. KT says

    I, too. think therapy dogs are born. I think a rock solid, non-reactive puppy is the key. Training just puts the icing on the cake. My dog passed his test and we do work at the nursing home. Unfortunately, he likes people but his idea of liking them is lying on their feet. Some of the older people love it but it makes it hard for them to pet him without fear of them falling out of their wheelchair. Since the people I deal with need more human contact I use Tucker as a sort of ice-breaker and then I can sit and talk with them after the initial intro is done.
    I agree with all of your points of what makes a good therapy dog. Early introduction to unusual circumstances really helps a lot in the training..elevators, loud noises, escalators, loud and boistrous kids, anything to help make the dog as bullet-proof as possible. I took Tucker to the airport and just walked around. All of the hustle and bustle and loudspeakers and people and……you get the point. Start early and don’t over-do.

  29. Anne in Minneapolis says

    My dog is currently a hospice therapy dog. He is extremely obedient and friendly but I didn’t understand that he wasn’t cut out for therapy work until we started working with our first patient. He will pay attention to them but is always looking back to me for direction and our patient picks up on it. I already know that after this patient passes I will retire him from therapy work, because it’s not what he really wants to do and it’s sad to see the patient understand that the dog wants to be there for me instead of for them.

  30. Kerry M. says

    Beth with the Corgis, A therapy group for dogs helping dogs is actually kind of brilliant. You could be very popular because dog bomb-proof dogs just seem so rare these days. I suspect that they may not be as rare as they seem. It’s just their owners probably don’t spend as much time seeking out doggy online support groups… :) I know of one place where you could be in instant hit. If you check out Grisha Stewart’s yahoo group, people on there are always looking for calm reliable dogs to help rehabilitate their not so calm reliable dogs. The link is here ->

    I also help out a trainer friend prep dogs for CGC, which I enjoy doing. I usually bring Huck, who can be reactive to some dogs, so he isn’t slam dunk, but it’s fun and good exposure for him. I think most CGC evaluators would love to have another dog to help them with the decoy dog scenario.

  31. says

    I’m fascinated by the idea of therapy dogs. In fact, just posted a photo of one on my blog yesterday, so coming to this post today is kind of ironic. As an educator, I’d like to see therapy dogs used more in the school setting as well as in nursing homes. In my opinion, the most essential thing is for a dog to have the “right” personality which mostly means a calm temperament and a love for people. Then of course the dog needs lots of basic training and socialization. Thanks for the great post. I’m going to look for you on facebook and “give a share” as well!

  32. EmilyS says

    Case in point: one of Michael Vicks fighting dogs (most of the dogs seized were not actually fighting dogs, but a few were, and Leo certainly was):

    My own APBT (who was rescued from an alleged dogfighter) had no particular training other than basic obedience. Around here, the hygiene standards for nursing homes, etc, aren’t very strict and they all allow family dogs to visit (as well as certified therapy dogs). When I took my boy to visit my mom, he always wanted to say hello to any other resident (or staff) who showed an interest. He was sweet and gentle, just leaning against them and licking hands or faces as offered. He never responded negatively or fearfully to anyone or any piece of equipment. His temperament was classic for the breed; at least in his case his therapy capability was born not made.

  33. Joe & Jan says

    Anyone who says that Northern breed dogs — the Malamutes, Huskies, etc., –do not make good therapy dogs, should visit “Boo Woofenill” – Facebook page. A 125lb, 6 year-old, wooly Alaskan Malamute, Boo (nicknamed by his “kids”) has been working with autistic children for the past three years and enjoying every minute of it. So much so, that in the past three years, he’s gotten at least three non-verbal children to speak and numerous others to make strides in communication. Now he’s moved from NYC to Salem, Massachusetts and will be on the therapy trail once agin, this time with his new companion Jezebel, a 3 year-old, female Alaskan Malamute who is a rescued Service Dog. Renegade was born into his role and has been a role model for all who know him.

  34. says

    This is a GREAT post. You described my dog EXACTLY under “Physically Calm.” He has everything else you say makes a good therapy dog, – except that – and because of this, I spent several YEARS trying to transform him into a therapy dog. He even passed his CGC, his TDI, an independent therapy group evaluation, AND the Delta Society test.

    And so I did visits with him, for about a year. As it turns out, he only passed those tests because I specifically trained for them. He loves people, sure, but he is NOT calm in new environments and gets all worked up. I was careful where we visited, and we never did nursing homes, but after a year, I knew he was never going to change. He just never calmed down, he would go into a new situation pulling on leash, rushing up to people to greet them, and often, since he’s a male, he was visibly excited, which didn’t go over well when we visited kids and was quite embarrassing.

    We actually didn’t do a ton of visits over that year, thankfully, because I kept telling myself I just needed to train him more. But, nothing worked, and we went to a LOT of trainers, so I finally called it quits and retired him. That was several years ago, and as it turns out, NO amount of training (or exercise) has been able to calm him. He is now eight, and he is still NOT calm – especially in new places. Yet many people STILL tell me he would make a great therapy dog because of how much he likes people. But, I know better. It’s just not who he is. He is now doing Nose Work instead, and it is definitely more his speed. :-)

    Who knows, like you said, maybe he’d do better when he is ten. Or maybe fifteen…

  35. Margaret McLaughlin says

    I am firmly in the ‘born’ camp, altho’ much training is needed. Only 1 of my dogs has been suitable, my first, who was adopted from Keeshond Rescue at age 3. He was physically calm, & loved people; would work a room like a politician. I took him to work with me after he passed his TDI (I am a CNA in a healthcare facility) after I taught him to alert to alarms & monitors that the night staff might not hear if we were working elsewhere. He taught himself to alert to wandering residents, & prevented many falls. He also would seek out & sit with residents who couldn’t sleep. What I found most moving was another self-appointed task—he would insist on sitting with the families of dying residents.
    Since he was the first dog I ever had, i did not realize how unusual he was. My now 12yo Lab, a career-change guide dog, probably could do therapy work, but would not enjoy it–she loves people she knows, but only tolerates strangers. I take my6yo Flat-Coat in for short ‘pet visits’, but she is an exuberant nut case who requires constant supervising to keep 4 on the floor & her face-scrubbing tongue in her mouth–she’s having a lot of trouble with the Utility Moving Stand, too. I don’t think she’ll ever be mellow enough to be a working therapy dog. I could probably train her to that standard, but I doubt if either of us would find it worth the effort.

  36. says

    Hi Patricia – we met at Clicker Expo and I’m just a couple hours away from you in Dubuque, Iowa! I’m a professional dog trainer and therapy dog evaluator – also a registered nurse. I have a dog with whom I have been visiting a local nursing center now on a weekly basis for the past 3 years. She was originally registered with TDI and loves people. She loves people so much that if someone makes eye contact with her and shows the slightest indication that they may give her some attention, she jumps straight up in the air with joy!

    Ginger used to fit into your #3 category until the age of 2 when she developed fear and anxiety issues, sound sensitivity and reactivity around certain other dogs. We have been working through these issues and she is a lot better, but I did not renew her TDI registration for obvious reasons.

    We still visit the nursing center but all are aware of Ginger’s issue with certain other dogs (although I marvel at Ginger’s tolerance for one yappy little terrier that greeted us with a threatening stance every time we visited) and so we visit when there are none and avoid any that show up. Ginger is well loved by staff as well as residents.

    I think the thing that makes Ginger such an awesome therapy dog is her love of people and her gentle nature. That sensitive nature is something I need to be careful of though, as she does not care to have her paws squeezed. She just squeals, but she is rock solid with people, including children.

    I have a Golden Retriever that I have trained as an assistance (“service”) demonstration dog and people ask to have her visit, but she just doesn’t have what it takes yet. Although she loves people, she is too much dog, too bouncy and a bit of a klutz. Perhaps when she grows older and slows down a bit she will make a good therapy dog.

    I think the ideal dog is one that has a rock solid easy going, stable temperament and is sensitive but not too sensitive, and one who genuinely enjoys people, but also tolerates other dogs. Therapy dogs should also be gentle and attentive, and of course responsive to their handlers. I have known dogs like this in my practice as a professional trainer, and also throughout my life, but have never owned a dog like this, unfortunately. This ideal dog is the farm dog of my childhood, tolerant, sweet, calm and gentle.

  37. K says

    Oh please don’t complain about the weather. The Canadian prairies have been braving -40 wind chills this week. And let me tell you that the Fahrenheit/Celsius question loses all meaning at that temp. I’ve really always wondered how far you can work with overcoming some personality short-falls in training for therapy work. Can you spot a dog with real potential that needs a few years to mellow?

  38. Hunter's Mom says

    Donna, judging by the picture you’ve posted, we have almost identical dogs! I like to tell folks that Hunter is almost 5, but since he’s mostly Lab, he’ll be a 6 month old puppy forever. 😉 Labs generally just LOVE people, and that is the main reason Hunter just doesn’t cut it around weak, small, or frail people. And that TAIL! Yikes – you can be seriously bruised by it when he’s really super-happy! Temperament-wise, Hunter would be a great fit for therapy work, but behaviorally, not so much! He’s been a good 4-H dog, and I’m going to re-start some nosework with him in the spring. He does like to have a job, but that job just won’t involve meeting delicate strangers.

  39. Kat says

    @Donna and the Dogs, Have you read Control Unleashed by McDervitt? I’m currently in the mode of reading everything I can get my hands on that might have ideas that can help me with my highly reactive Gorgiherd (our made up name for the half GSD and half Corgi that we adopted a couple months ago) Many of the passive and active focus games she describes in the book might be useful in getting some of your dog’s excitement under control. I’ve been trying some of them and am surprised how much calmer Finna is when she does something as simple as playing the blink game. When she blinks she gets a click and reward and in a very short time you can see that she’s less tense and wound up.

    And just to share, Finna who came to us barking, growling and lunging at everyone she saw on a walk no matter how far away they were today saw people shoveling their driveway and immediately turned to me for her treat. No barking, lunging, pulling or growling. See people=get treats. It’s a great first step in rehabilitating this unsocialized tightly wound, fearful dog.

  40. says

    Hunter’s Mom – Toby’s a Lab alright. Sounds like he and Hunter might be related!

    Kat – That is wonderful that you saw so much improvement with Finna and I wish you the best of luck sorting out Gorgiherd’s issues!

    I did actually try Lesli McDevitt’s methods, and her Look at That technique has worked WONDERS for one of my other rescues, Meadow. I’ve also taken Toby to work with Carolyn Wilki and Suzanne Clothier as a working team at seminars of theirs, and I’ve worked with approx 10 local trainers, and read umpteenth books on problem behaviors….and every method I’ve tried has not worked for Toby. Once he’s familiar with a place though, he is MUCH better behaved, so I’ve come to suspect it might possibly be a stress type behavior, or something along those lines. He was dumped at a shelter at 11 months, (instead of being returned to a breeder?), so I often wonder if he came from a puppy mill and missed out on some critical socialization and new experiences…

    Anyway, after six years or so of trying to “fix” him, I’ve decided that he is just a “special” guy and have finally just accepted him for who he is. A big sweet goofy over excitable Lab. :-)

  41. Jennifer Hamilton says

    I use my dog for occupational therapy work with children with cerebral palsy and adult stroke victims. I have the clients put the treats and pegs in the Nina Ottosson wooden puzzles and then my dog solves the puzzle and gives the pieces back to the client. The goal is to improve the clients hand/eye coordination and muscle strength on the weak side. The time taken for my dog to solve the puzzle gives the clients’ body a quick break to build muscle memory and recharge the circuits. My dog is also used as a motivator for clients that are less motivated or cooperative in their recovery and physical therapy program.

    Since my dog loves solving the puzzles, I thought this would be a perfect fit. What I didn’t initially anticipate is that my active working dog was not very interested in interacting with these “slow, less responsive” clients. They typically had slower response times, less affect…and were generally less rewarding. What I had to do was integrate barely visible reward elements into my AAT that made the client rewarding to my dog despite their limitations. It did work and eventually each client gained value to my dog.

    So, I guess I would say that handler creativity and problem solving is an important element in animal assisted therapy work, in particular, where you have specific client outcomes as your goal.

  42. Jennifer Hamilton says

    Oops…I guess my comment should have waited for the discussion of “handler criteria”. Sorry about that.

  43. em says

    How wonderful to hear about all the therapy dogs. I think I’m firmly in the ‘born’ camp, too, at least as far as the temperament component goes. Several people at dog parks or out and about in public have commented that Otis would be a good therapy dog because he is so calm, gentle, and tall-making him easy to reach for a person in a bed or a wheelchair.

    But I just don’t think he’s truly a good candidate. Otis is TOLERANT of new people, but he doesn’t actually love them. There are a few types of people that he eagerly seeks to greet and interact with, (youngish, shortish, roundish women and uniformed police officers, oddly enough) but mostly, he’s indifferent. He loves the people that he loves, (and he has a pretty big circle of friends and relatives, for a dog), but he’s not naturally affiliative or attentive to strangers. He gets a LOT of attention from people out in public, and based on that, I’m confident that he could probably do service work, but I can’t imagine that he would enjoy it.

    Sandy, on the other hand, never met a stranger (dog or human) and would be a great candidate, if I ever get around to putting in the work necessary to get her excitement under control and her manners totally up to snuff!

    So happy to hear about Willie and Tootsie. Though Sandy and Otis get along famously, like Tootsie, Sandy is inclined to be a bit pushy when it comes to food and attention, and Otis is inclined to defer to her, which I’m grateful for (it’s nice that they don’t snark at one another or get into confrontations) but not always pleased to see. We have dealt with it by gently overruling Sandy when she shoves in. If Otis is quietly lying on his bed while she is dogging my heels, snuffling eagerly up at a treat, I gaze over her head, step around her and feed Otis his treat first, rewarding his patience instead of her pushiness. Similarly at the door, when I come home, I call out a general greeting, ‘Hello pups!”, but then look right over Sandy’s giddily wiggling head, step past her and greet quiet Otis first. It fits in with two agendas for me: preventing exuberant Sandy from frustrating lower-keyed Otis, and generally discouraging Sandy’s tendency to get overly excited by not rewarding her when she’s highly excited .

    I give both dogs treats, affection, and attention, and I make a conscious effort to keep it fair and even between them, but I also make a conscious effort not to reward Sandy when she is being pushy. Over the last nine months or so, their interactions have mellowed out-Sandy is less forward, Otis is more apt to stand his ground and take an equal place in the doorway, and most happily, they’ve never gotten into any sort of competitive confrontation with one another.

  44. Candy says

    I’d say I have to agree with most – born and made – with the “born” part first. My little petite Golden let me know by observing her interactions with the world in general. The “made” part is more the honing of the skill; she went through training to become a certified pet therapy dog then went through more training at a local hospital to be able to go there. Within the hospital, there is more training for different situations, such as being part of a pediatric procedure in the emergency room or going to the cancer treatment part of the hospital.
    Lucy May also lets me when she’s tired and what venue she enjoys. She likes more the pace of a hospital, for example, than an assisted living center or hospice. She even seems to wear the occasional holiday “costume” with dignity and care, but then, she is a bit of a poser! And, of course, loves the attention.
    So, she was born with the skill set and continues to let me know how to help her just be.

  45. Alexandra says

    Interesting discussion! I think there’s a certain combination of a dog AND handler that has to come together to cultivate the right natural tendencies. It was suggested to me a few times that my yellow lab male might make a good therapy dog candidate, but I really don’t see it. He does like to meet people, but at his core he’s really a one-woman dog. He will say hello, get some treats or pets, but he doesn’t show much interest in connecting in an serious way with people who aren’t me. My new border collie pup on the other hand seems to have this natural affinity for children. He LOVES them, and will sit politely in front of them for extended periods to be petted. He is physically calm around them, too, which he is not as much around adults. I didn’t train this at all; he just did it.

    Mostly, though I’m not sure I really have the right sort of people skills to be good in therapy work moreso than my dogs. I’m not shy, but I don’t have that gift that makes people feel right at ease in first meeting.

    Quick aside – a friend of mine has an Akita that is an excellent therapy dog. I don’t think there are any breed stereotypes you can really make about which breed is better for therapy work or unsuited, etc. You just never know & have to look at the individual dog. I do see a number of people who’s hearts are in the right place but probably try to hard to make a dog into a therapy dog when the animal really doesn’t enjoy it.

  46. Shannon says

    My dog, Gracie, was certified as a therapy dog in October when she was only 21 months old. She had gone through nearly 5 months of therapy dog training…and this is in addition to the 16 weeks of beginner/advanced training that she had already completed.

    The amazing this is that 8 months prior to her certification, she was showing extreme fear of everyone that wasn’t my familyand she cowered when people tried to pet her. Even the trainer that I was working with one on one said that he doubted she would ever me a therapy prospect based on her fear and nervousness. But, through training and building her confidence, she is now awesome at her job. She is calm, approaches people for petting, lays her head on the knees of the residents of nursing homes.

    So, in Gracie’s case, I think she was made. She turns 2 at the end of this month and she is doing a great job in her therapy work. I think, though, that had I not had the opportunity to work her though her issues in training, she would not have made it this far.

    However, I also think that they can be born. I have friends who have dogs who are naturally friendly and calm…and they will ease into the work if they want to.

    I do think the worst thing you can do is force a dog who doesn’t love the work to do the work because you want to. You and your dog work as a team, and if one is not happy, the team can’t function.

  47. Caroline McKinney says

    Something that no one has mentioned is that most of the therapy certifying organizations (at least TD and Delta) will not accept dogs that are fed a raw diet. I have not even contemplated therapy work for a long time because of this.

  48. Kat says

    Caroline, Not every organization that registers Therapy Dogs prohibits raw feeders. Therapy Dog International leaves it to the individual. Ranger is registered with TDI and is fed raw. We try to be sensible about it so he doesn’t visit severely immune compromise populations (we stay out of chemo wards) and if we were visiting hospital patients we’d ask permission of their doctors but the bottom line for me is that there is conclusive scientific proof that interacting with dogs benefits people. The evidence for raw fed dogs posing an increased health hazard is all over the map and not conclusive. We take reasonable precautions and get on with what he was born to do. I’ve talked about this more in depth in my blog if you’re interested.

  49. Karen London says

    It’s not essential, but really tall dogs can add a special bonus in therapy work. When my sister and brother-in-law used to take their Newfoundland to a place with lots of seniors, many of the staff commented on how great it was that so many of the people could pet her without reaching down. It meant that a lot of people with balance issues or locomotion challenges could easily interact with her in the hallways even as she was coming and going. Of course, small dogs that can be on laps have great value for people with physical challenges, and a dog of any size can be great at therapy work, but I had never thought about the special gift that large dogs can bring until my sister mentioned it.

  50. says

    Wonderful post! I have a very skittish GSD mix (Sophie) and a very bouncy young lab (Boomer). Needless to say, Sophie is not therapy dog material. But we’ll see how Boomer does further (much further) in the future.

    I was glad to see this post because Fur-Get Me Not in Northern Virginia, where I am an assistant trainer, is starting a brand new therapy dog class this Spring. I’ll be helping in that class and keeping my eyes out for some qualities to add to your list! This post would be a wonderful way to begin that class.

    So glad to hear that Will and Tootsie are both doing well — and here’s to hoping they do better with each other as each day goes by!

  51. Sara CV says

    Animal Farm Foundation, a wonderful organization dedicated to ‘pit bulls’, has created an Assistance Dog program where they are taking rescued ‘pit bulls’ and training them to be assistance dogs (with all positive reinforcement training I might add!) One of my friends and mentors is the head trainer for this project, and it’s going quite well so far. So, I would argue that as these dogs are not being specifically bred for this purpose, that they are more ‘made’ than born. Yes they have to have certain propensities to qualify for the program, but they are then shaped and molded into assistance dogs.

    VERY cool program in my opinion!

  52. Laura says

    Born!!! The best ones anyway. I have one (Cheyenne) who was born for this. I recognized that in her and because of that pursued volunteering. We did every AAA and AAT game in town and out of town for years and we loved it. So naturally when I got another dog I decided he (Joker) would be a therapy dog too. I trained him up and socialized him right off the bat. He passed his tests the week of his first birthday. He was calm and a bang on obedience dog. However, Cheyenne’s philosophy of life is like a Wal-mart greeter and she would want to meet and greet every person she saw. She thought “hi, do you want to be my friend?”. Joker, on the other hand thought, “I’m sure you are a very nice person but I don’t really need any more friends”. He is a friendly dog and loves his circle of my friends and family tremendously but he just doesn’t care about most people. The READ program worked best for him because it was very calm and he got to do his tricks after each kid. But I knew in my heart that he didn’t love it so I quit. As Cheyenne got older (9), she didn’t love it anymore either. So I quit. It was hard because it was something that made ME feel really good to do and I had it was a part of my social life. I felt good though that I didn’t make my dogs keep doing something for me when clearly they didn’t enjoy it. Now I volunteer at an animal shelter and my dogs stay home.

    Way too many people think of themselves and what they want and not of their dogs and what they want. Particularly if the dogs are such good dogs that they will do it for them. I am guilty of this. First, I rushed my dog. I had no business testing that dog the week of his first birthday. I do give myself credit for recognizing that he didn’t enjoy it and quitting. I also give myself credit for listening to my older dog when she didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t think 9 was that old but she told me it was. It makes me so sad to see people force dogs into this who are not suited for it.

  53. says

    My youngest dog Comet , a Great Pyrenees mix, has been doing therapy work with developmentaly disabled adults since the age of 1 and a half. Because I am very familiar with the folks we volunteer with I am able to assist them with proper behavior around Comet. I also make sure to give him the proper amount (not to much, but just enough) exercise before we make a visit.
    Recently a regular client of ours was admitted to the hospital, then hospice. We visited her at both places. In the hospital Comet behaved wonderfully with our regular client her family and the nurses who came and went. He handled the medical noises as if he didn’t notice them at all. He climbed into bed on command and slept at her feet while she held the leash and gave him treats and pets now and again. After Comets long nap and our client was now asleep we made our way out of the hospital only to be stopped at the elevator and beckoned into a side room by an elderly woman. I didn’t realized until we were in the room that this was a dinning room and the whole room smelled like gravy. Comet stuck his nose in the air and got all wiggly then made one LOUD bark of excitement. The woman who called us into the room thought this was all fun and laughed, but the other folks in the room almost jumped out of their seats!
    Until Comet is older, we will stick to working with the clients we know. Someday he will be mature enough to handle a room full of gravy, but he’s not there yet!

    P.S. Thanks again Patricia for all your wonderful work. We just added a puppy to our household and I reread the Puppy Primer to help us along.


  54. says

    I’m with the majority, I think: born, then made.

    My first foster dog, Nessie, definitely had the right stuff to become a therapy dog: gentle, calm, tolerant of unpredictable handling, loved kids, deeply affiliative toward people. I don’t even know if she would have needed any training. She was already there on her own, pretty much.

    Since then I’ve had two other fosters who MIGHT have been good therapy dogs with enough training and confidence-building. They were both very gentle and people-oriented, but a little on the shy side. So I think they could have qualified, eventually, if the handler had really wanted them to get there and had given them the tools and training to polish and strengthen their innate qualities.

    Meanwhile my own resident dog, Pongu, would be a total failure: fearful/fear-aggressive and (at best) disinterested in other people. He’d never get in the door without freaking out, no matter how long and hard we trained.

    And my recently adopted foster failure Crookytail… I don’t know for sure, because we’ve only been together for about a week, but I strongly suspect he’d fit into the category of dogs who approach it as an obedience exercise and are obviously less interested in the therapy patient than his handler. That’s why I adopted him — because he showed such clear signs of being the kind of dog who bonds very closely to his person and easily ignores outside stimuli while “on the job” — and that’s GREAT for freestyle and obedience, but maybe not so much for therapy work.

  55. says

    I think a good therapy dog is both nature (they way they are made) and nurture (the things we do to train and socialize them). Most of all, I think the very best therapy dogs are the dogs that just love life and are happy dogs with no fears. These happy dogs have never met a stranger they didn’t love, aren’t afraid of anything because they have had few if any bad experiences with people and think God made people to pet them, play with them and love them. All of that is indeed nurture. Sadly, dogs that were born with being timid and shy will not make good therapy dogs.

    So that’s my two cents!

  56. says

    What a wonderful discussion, AND how fabulous to have more educational materials and a DVD on the topic. Thank you for doing this. The one word I have not seen mentioned in much detail is “socialized.” To ask whether a therapy dog is born or made is almost like the question what is more important “nature or nurture.” It is a complex topic, one which has yet to be proven in any true fashion. However, regardless of the pet’s birthright gifts or trained skills, it remains ever true that in all cases proper socialization is imperative. I have lived and served with three therapy dogs and several that could have passed the test, but did not really have the nerve strength to pursue such a job. I find it very dissappointing that most of the organizations that allow people to instruct and evaluate do not really require those people who serve in this capacity to have a skill set of really knowing dog body language and/or experience in training dogs. On the flip side of th coin, there are a good number of “certified trainers” that do not really know much about therapy work and encourage their clients to pursue the field with their pets, only thinking about the skillset and not the socialibility of the dog. You are correct – it is a team and both ends of the leash are equally important. Best wishes as you develop this field into your programming.

  57. K says

    Excellent post. I see a lot of people in a basic training class who express a desire to do therapy work. Out of the 60 some with that interest, only one of the dogs would be ideal. That owner got hooked on training and is now following other interests.

    I thought own young and excitable dog would be a horrible therapy dog. I was told by many laughing people involved in the breed that he needed a job but would never be a good therapy dog. During a few school presentations and encounters out in public, he’s completely surprised me and is absolutely amazing. He still isn’t able to pass a test, but someday when he is ready, he will make a lot of people happy and they will make him -so- incredibly happy.

  58. Debbie Schoene says

    I too think a therapy dog is born and not made. My male English Springer Spaniel & I have been a Delta Society pet partner team for 2 years. When people approach me expressing interest in pursuing AAA/AAT with their dogs, they often ask my opinion of what makes a “good therapy dog”. To that I reply, a dog that is bulletproof. I believe any dog that is involved in therapy work has to possess the kind of temperament that allows him to tolerate virtually any “insult” without an adverse reaction. My dog has been kicked by a 3 year old, grabbed roughly on the snout by a dementia patient and annually works shifts at a booth at a large national expo attended by 20,000 members of the general public, many of whom are there specifically to interact with the dogs. In all of these cases, Swing has been absolutely unflappable. While he certainly doesn’t enjoy the occasional rough handling (and it’s my job to extract him from those situations ASAP) I know without a doubt that he would never react with a bite or even a growl…’s just not in his nature. Bulletproof.

  59. Laura Crannell says

    There have been many comments on the dog side of therapy pet work. I would like to speak about the human side of the leash. I was the human end of the leash for 4 wonderful years with my retired racing greyhound, Doug. Doug was 3 when my husband and I adopted him and at first glance he was not any type of material for anything.

    Doug had sepparation anxiety, some dog reactivity with non-greyhounds, ligiment damage to most of the toes in his right front paw that affected his ability to run and later in life gave him pain walking, IBS, damaged teeth from crate shaking on the track, a cornea scar that later re-opened and needed treatment, and 2 discs that were injured in his neck.

    I was not therapy partner material either. I was bed ridden from 2 ruptured discs, damaged to my SI joint and my right hip. Together we learned to be each other’s company in a rural area where all I could see from my mostly supine postion in a hospital bed were trees and sky.

    By the time Doug was 6 I was stronger on my feet, he was no longer dog-reactive and he was the “meet and greet dog” at greyhound events. He passed his CGC and therapy dog tests. We tried nursing home work and he gravitated towards the dementia ward but it was draining work for him and difficult on his toes. My job on the other end of the leash was to listen to him. He needed a job where it was more “joyful”. I contacted a library where there was a reading program where therapy teams were matched with readers one-on-one. We spent the last 3 years of Doug’s life bonded to 2 readers. He would be with one reader then the other “back to back” on reading day and still have energy to meet and greet the library staff and patrons.

    What did I do? I held the leash, I carried his water bowl and his big soft greyhound bed big enough for him and a reader :) I was silent. I let the readers talk to Doug and made sure that they knew that he was listening, that they could touch him, kiss him, rest on him, show him the book, play hide and seek in the library before their session with him. I let them feel safe with him, I let the other children listen with out embarrasing the readers that were “his”, I encouraged the parents that the readers (grades 3-5) were making progress, I was a non-judgmental listener just like my dog. I let Doug lead.

    All three readers went from behind grade level to grade level or above grade level dispite handicaps or other challenges. We were invited into homes, made part of families, Doug was visited when his health was failing and he could not visit the library for reading any more — his readers came to our house to read to him and be with him in the last month of his life. I let these wonderful people into my life and my heart. They wanted pictures with and of him at his special place by the ocean and we agreed with a friend who was also a professional photographer.

    On that day we didn’t pose any one, that wasn’t my job, I just held the leash — even though it really wasn’t needed any more — it was once an umbilical cord, then a safety tool, then a communication tool until the end. We had learned to dance — sometimes I lead, sometimes he lead, sometimes we danced together.

    Were we a team that was made or born? I don’t know, I just know that we were a team.

  60. em says

    I’ve been continuing to enjoy reading about people’s experiences in AAT and very inspired to hear about all the dog/person teams that have made such a difference in people’s lives and had their own lives enriched by the experience. I’m more motivated than ever to look into it for Sandy.

    One thing has been niggling at me, though, and it’s a very nitpicky thing, since Patricia’s main point is well- made and well-taken, but I find that I can’t quite fit Otis into one of the four basic types of dog that Patricia describes. Most dogs that I’ve known, sure. Sandy’s a no-brainer type 3 (most of my dogs have been-I’ve been very lucky). She’s THRILLED by the prospect of meeting people and dogs and would happily go home with anyone who showed her the slightest encouragement (even the mailman). But Otis, I don’t know…

    He doesn’t love either dogs or people that way-He’s generally interested, particularly in in new dogs, but he sniffs and usually gives the canine equivalent of a shrug, and ignores them afterwards. Only once in a while does he make a new dog friend, that he’ll run to greet and engage in play. People are much the same. If a stranger or casual acquaintance calls his name, he won’t even turn his head to look at them. He’s comfortable enough, and has no objection if they approach or touch him, but he won’t seek to engage.

    On the surface, it would seem that Otis is a type four, adoring neither dogs nor people, and in a sense I suppose he is, because he does not AUTOMATICALLY adore anyone. But I don’t think that really captures Otis’ disposition at all- playing with dogs is probably the chief joy of his life, and he greets his human friends with obvious pleasure and affection. If there were only a few of each I might dismiss this tendency, but Otis bonds readily and deeply with people, forming attachments to anyone he regularly interacts with in a positive way. I’d say he is bonded to at least fifteen humans outside our immediate family-grandparents, friends, co-workers- some people he sees several times a week and some people he sees a few times a year. In each case, these are people he would run across a field to greet and happily do anything for.

    It’s even more dramatic with dogs. Otis doesn’t engage new dogs in play as often as he did when he was younger, but when he meets a dog who is a good fit, size and energy-wise, he forms attachments in as little as a few minutes, remembering and joyfully greeting that dog when he meets him again. Others, especially puppies, he builds a relationship with over several weeks or months, but then remains attached to that dog forever. I’d say that there are perhaps a dozen dogs in this category.

    So I can’t say he DOESN’T adore people and dogs- dogs in particular he likes so much that no food treat has ever served as sufficient incentive to distract his attention from them- he would rather play than eat. It just isn’t universal. Otis is choosy about who he likes and he can’t be bribed or bullied into being friends if he doesn’t want to be.

    There’s a lady at the park who hands out high-value treats to the dogs (chicken jerky, cheese). After two years, he will barely give her the time of day, often declining even to take a treat-but there are other people from the park who never give out anything that he will gallop across the field to bounce around whuffle happily and lean against. Similarly,there are dogs who have been trying to engage him in play for YEARS and gotten exactly nowhere, while others make the ‘A’ list in one meeting.

    All of this is sort of ancillary to the main point, I suppose. A dog like Otis would not, I believe, make a good therapy dog, given his tendency to snub people he doesn’t particularly take to. But I would, as part of my ancillary point, suggest a fifth category for dog types- Otis is what I would call ‘discriminating’ or ‘pack loyal.’ He has a relatively large and porous group of friends whom he is deeply attached, and he is quite readily affiliative with those he likes, but strongly non-affiliative towards those he does not know or like. I don’t think this category is as uncommon as it might seem-many dogs at the park seem to share this clannishness or ‘pack’- oriented mentality.

    They won’t follow or obey a stranger or show much interest beyond the initial investigation and greeting of a passing dog, but they readily allow new members to join the group and often do become attached to them. Maybe this is a learned relationship style? The practice of off-leash walking and free social play may be teaching the dogs to pick their owners’ voices out of the background and ignore other people’s, and not to go hogwild over every new dog since their desire for playmates and social interaction is being met by their regular friends. New people and dogs are less of a thrill and they can afford to be picky. Or maybe dogs who do best in this type of setting tend to fall into that category and I’m witnessing self-selection?

    Still, there is a big contingent of effusive, people-pleasing, dog face-licking super affiliatives at the park too, along with a smaller contingent of dogs who really don’t wish to interact with either dogs or people or both.

    So I’m back to the beginning- I think that there is a middle dog who doesn’t fit into the four categories- a dog who does adore people and dogs, just not all of them.

  61. Wendy W says

    Thank you, Trish, for starting this great discussion, and thank you, Laura Crannell, for your beautiful post, which brought tears to my eyes. I guess it’s true that so much about living life well is about listening well.

  62. Dianna says

    Hi Patricia,
    LOVE the pic of Willie standing in the snow covered landscape. I have a question that has absolutely nothing to do with Therapy Dogs but didn’t know how else to ask you. I have a very good friend whose little dog, Abbie (a beautiful coal-black Scottie) is sick. Abbie is 12 years old and her kidneys are starting to fail. She has been back and forth to the vets for several weeks. She does better one day then gets worse the next. My friend never had children so her pets ARE her children (I’ve had children and my pets are still my children). She has also just recently lost her husband from a sudden massive heart attack. I’m so scared that Abbie is next and it’s going to devastate my friend. What is your professional advice on how to comfort her when Abbie does pass on? She loves Abbie so much and depends on her for companionship. I just want to be a good friend when that day comes and I’m truly scared for her.

  63. Larry C. says

    I like all the comments about listening to your dog. Not every dog will make a good therapy dog, or retriever, sled dog, stock dog, search and rescue dog, police dog or guard dog. There are dozens of jobs out there for dogs, and the one constant is that dogs love to work. I have spent my life around working dogs, and have learned how much dedication and creativity they bring to doing their jobs well. I have never been involved with therapy dogs, but I’m willing to bet that a good therapy dog knows that their job goes beyond just meeting people and getting petted.

  64. trisha says

    Such a great discussion! Thanks to all for their comments. I have to run to take Willie to PT, but will answer Dianna’s question when I return (ouch, so sorry about your friend and her dog) and Em’s great point about dogs in between the ‘4 categories.’….

  65. trisha says

    Dianna: Aaah, so sorry about your friend. I wish I had some magic to tell you, but I can say that you are already being a fabulous friend. The only thing I can say that might be helpful is to treat your friend as if she has had major surgery, because her brain thinks she has. (I use the present tense, because I suspect that she is already grieving the death of her dog. I call it “pre-grieving.”) I wrote about this in a blog awhile ago (search for grieving, sorry, no time to search for it now), but basically it turns out our brains perceive ‘separation distress’ in the same primitive place that they perceive pain. You can’t prevent the death or the pain, but you can comfort her by being there, taking care of logistics for her and nurturing her with food, touch and whatever soothes her (flowers for some, not for others… all depends on what ‘feeds’ them). It’s just not possible to think clearly when you are rocked with grief, and neither is it possible to take care of yourself. Keep in mind too, as I’m sure you will, that her grieving may take a different form, but if she loses her husband and BFF dog within a few months of each other, it’s going to be a long time before she is back to herself.

  66. trisha says

    To Em: I absolutely 100% agree with you that some dogs fall between the categories. I was using those categories pretty loosely, and I can easily see that Otis doesn’t quite fit into any of them. Sorry to over simplify… sometimes it’s seductive to do so to make a point, but really, it’s rarely a good idea when it comes down to it. Tell Otis I would be honored if I somehow I got to join his inner circle.

  67. Dianna says

    Thanks Patricia,
    I didn’t realize that the brain perception of separation and pain fell in the same place but it makes perfect sense. In the past when I have lost my precious pets the mental pain is deep and drops you down into a hole you have to learn how to crawl out of. We are actually burying her husband this afternoon as he died the morning of the evening I emailed you. The traumatic part of it was she found him in their home already gone. He was a very special man and a great Session Court Judge in our city. Just not a good time for “Abbie”(their little dog)to be sick. Thank you so much for your time. I knew you would give me good advice. Give Willie and Tootsie a big hug for me. I love the pics of them – refreshes my soul!

  68. Pat says

    I registered my first therapy dog in Jan of 1999. Since then I have had 8 registered therapy dogs. Mine are Yorkies. I’m a tester/observer so I have seen many dog teams over the last 13 years and some are born that way and others are made. The handler can make or break a dog. Mine have learned from each other. We have traveled around 30,000 miles and too many hours to count. Mine enjoy the the hospitals and hospice work best. All this volunteering has been my therapy and it makes my retirement years happy.

  69. Susan says

    I’ve been visiting the same nursing home once a week for 14 years, currently with my third therapy dog. All my dogs have come from the same shelter, and all have come to me as adults. There was no guarantee when I first brought them home that any of them would eventually make good therapy dogs, but they have. With basic obedience, rewards for calm behavior, and lots of socialization, they have all done very well. I chose the nursing home because my first dog didn’t like children and did much better with frail elderly people in wheelchairs, and the others have done well with this population too. The first dog did a lot of tricks, which were always a hit, and the other two have been cuddly people pleasers. So I think that in some respects a good therapy dog can be made, but the raw material has to be in there somewhere.

  70. Terrie says

    My guy is one of those dogs who LOVES people, but isn’t really into other dogs. He thinks we go to the dog park so people will pet him. He’s not at all aggressive, happily letting my apartment maintenance guy in when I’m not home, and is physically laid back — one of those dogs who was born with an old soul, happy to hand out by your side, despite being part of a higher energy breed. The problem? He is truly annoying if he’s not getting attention. If the petting stops for more than 10 seconds, he will stick his nose under your hands and give a little flip to land it on his head. I’ve tried and tried to break him of his attention-seeking habits, but he craves that connection like food, water and air. Thankfully, he has no separation anxiety, so I’ve decided it’s one of those quirks I can live with.

  71. says

    I loved reading this article because it mirrors so much of what I think about therapy dogs. When I got my first dog, a golden retriever at just 4 weeks old (the mother was not being fed properly so we took the puppy early), I knew I wanted to train him to be a therapy dog. He passed his CGC at 7 mths old and passed his therapy dog test with Delta at just a year old. He loves all people and all dogs but even at 3 years old now, he is still pretty bouncy and it takes him a few minutes to settle down. We socialized him very well and he isn’t afraid of anything. Even though we exercise him extensively (biking, pulling sleds and skijoring and treadmill in winter and many trips to the dog park), he is just a very happy bouncy dog. So I know not to take him into hospital rooms but he is wonderful with large groups of children and doing public activities to promote therapy dogs. My second dog, a lab/golden mix, who we got when he was 3 months old was BORN to be a therapy dog. At just 5 mths old, the director of the Pet Pals program at our local hospital begged me to have him certified as soon as he was a year old. He passed his Pet Partners test a month ago and has already done AAT, visited patients in the Infusion lab and visited with many of the employees and visitors in waiting rooms already. HE LOVES ALL PEOPLE and just knows who to go to and how to approach them. In the same room, he will go up to one person and hand them his paw, another he will just turn and sit beside their chair and yet another, he will lay down at their feet. It amazes me at how perceptive and calm he is at such a young age.
    Now back to some of the comments in your article…. I have belonged to a therapy group in the past and out of 20 teams, I saw only two other dogs who actually approached people on their own. Most of them tolerated people petting them but most didn’t even look at the patients and some were just downright stressed and wanting to leave. I saw some of handlers actually having to drag their dogs up to people and yes some of the other dogs just laid down and completely ignored people all together.
    My husband and I are dedicated to helping more people get into pet therapy as there is a great need for GOOD therapy dogs. I give classes at our local dog park to tell people about pet therapy, what it involves and the kinds of places where they can volunteer. I do it at the dog park because I want to see how their dogs react to strangers and how they react to strange dogs. More than half of the therapy dogs that I know are not dog friendly even though it is a requirement to pass the test. I think it is only fair for people to know up front that their dog might not be a good candidate or maybe just isn’t ready or mature enough. I know because I have two totally different types of therapy dogs that some are good at some things and some good at others but all of them need to love all people and be comfortable in strange situations and around other dogs.

  72. NessieW says

    Hello all! I have owned many dogs all with different personalities over the years and all of them have become fantastic companion dogs. I’ve done my own obedience training with them and have even trained dogs to become hunting dogs that can flush birds, stand on point, retrieve etc… I have also worked at our local High School in the Special Education department and I enjoy working with these kids and teenagers so much! I guess my question is what type of traits do you look for in a puppy or young dog that tends to lead to a pup becoming a Therapy dog? I would love to find a dog at a shelter that would hopefully becoming a therapy dog but the only traits I have every looked for are those for a hunting dog or just a family dog. Any help would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

  73. Karen says

    A dog has to be born to be a therapy dog. Our 12 year old lab who we just lost was unbelievable. She visited everywhere for 9 years. (Even when she was a puppie, she would lie down and be submissive if another dog was coming down the street. ) The regional person said that she was the sweetest dog that he had ever met in his whole vet practice.

    (She got a big hit with the poisoned dog food around the country about 7 years ago. She got diabetes and kept going until 12) Even then should she would climb up on the weight scales on her own and even offer her paw for the blood work. Everybody was amazed.

    Everybody loved her. We got letters of thank yous from kids that were scared of dogs before they met her. She did inner city schools for reading programs (her favorites), hospice, libraries, and nursing homes.

  74. Alyssa says

    I have a staffy who many evaluators would assume is “too much dog”… but the reality is that she made a choice to be a therapy dog and passed the assessment (has done twice now) starting at 2 years of age. While she’s bomb proof, her ideal location is in either mental health or disability/respite as often these facilities do require a bit more dog due to the varied personalities of the patients/consumers. Ninna is known to respond to a friendly stranger with “woof”… but “woof” actually means “hi, hi, are we friends or what!!!” and “woof” is just one of many sounds; said sounds have been ideal for stimulating people on the autism spectrum and other such learning disorders. Her ‘talking’ has and continues to be an invaluable ice breaker. While this has settled down over the years overall, she knows who can handle a louder greeting, who needs to be given puppy kisses and who just wants to have his or her space. She will also push a ball towards someone if they have ignored her offering to throw it for her – these skills were naturally acquired due to my having a disability myself. Since beginning her therapy journey, she has become my service dog due to the therapy dog co-ordinator noticing tasks she was doing for me and informing me that I could have her assessed (public access test) in order to do these tasks for me in public. My disability is a vision impairment and physical/pnurological condition that effects my balance, co-ordination and mental health.

    I also have a tiny little yorky cross, who, while she adores people, can be dog-reactive on leash (leash reactivity)… I feel that if we are able to resolve this issue we may get somewhere with therapy visiting as interactions which I have seen recently have started to lead me to believe that she too is making the choice to do this work… I shall see how this reactive dog course helps her… but I am not putting her under any pressure. Neither is Ninna under any. I thank my dogs for the selflessness with which they love and look after me and my community.

    Oh, and there were a few comments to make re: others’ comments:
    .to the lady with the Doberman, have you ever considered visiting facilities such as special education units at schools or facilities who support children with autism as your doby sounds much like my nin, a bit more exhuberant but suitable for those who need that bit more of a physical interaction… there is a huge gap in this area.
    .to the commenter who was talking about the play therapy dog program, yes, this is awesome! some of the clients I visit do need a little more of a play-therapy based program which focuses on particular areas as opposed to merely stroking the dog and interacting… dogs do pick up on this, too.
    .to the commenter who spoke of a dog-therapy dog program, my staffy ninna is also one of these dogs who loves rehabilitating anxious or fearful dogs; this is how we came to adopt our yorky mix as she was a foster. It was ninna who helped her feel confident with other dogs and people. If you get this started I would love to get it happening here in Australia.

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