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Getting Started in Therapy Dog

I wrote last Sunday about the fact that I want to get involved with therapy dog this year with my Toy Poodle, Ruthie. I got her CGC a few weeks ago, and then went to the orientation for the six-week therapy dog class I signed us up for at Teamworks Dog Training. A friend of mine who has a Beagle has already gone through this program and told me how great the instructor, Christie, is, and I could tell from our orientation that I was going to really enjoy the class, along with the other seven or eight people who were also signed up for my time slot.

Once Ruthie and I finish our class, we’ll have an evaluation, get our forms in order and get certified with Canines for Service, an organization based in Wilmington, N.C., that includes Canines for Therapy, Canines for Veterans and Canines for Literacy programs.

I was just getting familiar with the student manual I got at orientation and looking forward to the whole process when my entire plan got waylaid. My 20-month-old Norwich came in season, and then, of course, so did Ruthie. Number 11 listed under the “General Policies” that I received when I signed up at Teamworks says: “Female dogs in heat are not allowed in the building or on the training grounds. Owners may request a transfer to the next available class at no charge.”

Just my luck that my 9-year-old dog comes in season the week we’re starting this class. So we’ve transferred to a class that begins on March 9. The funny thing is that I was almost embarrassed to admit to the owner of Teamworks that my bitch is in season, a reaction to the fact that, these days, it seems that like people believe that every dog in the world should be spayed or neutered. And certainly there’s an argument to be made for spaying even show dogs after a certain age, but like many of my fellow fanciers, I just have not spayed Ruthie, although her mother, age 13, is spayed.

In any case, in the past two weeks I’ve learned so much about how I could have been better prepared to get involved in the world of therapy dogs, in addition to the fact that bitches in season can’t participate, that I decided to share this information with BISD readers. Now that I know many of the answers, I also know the questions!

Therapy dogs help all kinds of people, from children and the elderly to survivors of natural and manmade disasters. Photo courtesy of the Lutheran Church Charities and the K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs.

Is a Therapy Dog the Same as a Service Dog?

The simple answer to this question is no, and for Canines for Service dogs, even implying that your therapy pooch is a service dog if he isn’t can result in the removal of your certification.

A service dog is one that is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability,” according to the Canines for Therapy student manual. Disabilities may include blindness, deafness, seizure disorders, mental disabilities or a host of other conditions. The service dogs we’re most familiar with are Seeing Eye dogs, but these canines serve many functions. Service dogs are afforded privileges under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act that in no way apply to therapy dogs, such as admission to businesses, such as restaurants, theaters or retail stores, that otherwise have a “no pets” policy and flying large dogs in the cabin on commercial flights instead of in the belly of the plane.

A therapy dog “is a dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools,” in other caregiving settings, and in stressful circumstances, such as those following a natural or manmade disaster. Again, according to the Canines for Service student manual, “A therapy dog has no legal access and must be invited into facilities to visit.” Therapy dogs are not allowed in stores, the movies or your favorite local bistro. We will receive a vest once Ruthie is certified, which, since it bears a patch with the Canines for Service seal is very official-looking, and when she’s wearing it some people might mistake Ruthie for a service dog. But they are not one and the same.

Where Do I Go to Get Started?

There are numerous ways to become a therapy dog, differing somewhat among organizations. Ruthie actually could become a therapy dog without attending the classes at Teamworks. I could, for instance, get her certified, or registered, with Therapy Dogs International by signing up for an upcoming evaluation in my area, passing that TDI evaluation given by a TDI evaluator, and then registering with the organization. TDI doesn’t offer or require that its participants take classes; in fact, there are no TDI-sanctioned classes available.

There are no doubt many dogs that are obedience trained and have been exposed a fair amount to the outside world that, with a little practice and preparation, could certainly pass the TDI test without going through a class. TDI’s evaluation is, at its core, similar to the CGC test; your dog must sit, down, stay, behave while left with another person for a specific amount of time while you are out of sight, and be approached and petted by a stranger while remaining calm. The rest of the evaluation involves the dog being exposed to “unusual situations,” such as wheelchairs, crutches, children, loud noises and a person rushing up to the dog with arms waving.

In our case, Ruthie only knows very basic obedience commands. In addition, I feel that we need to learn more about the world of therapy dogs before we get registered. During our class, we’ll improve her grasp of various commands, be exposed both to equipment and situations with which she is unfamiliar and learn about different kinds of volunteer opportunities. Perhaps as important as her training, I will receive instruction in how best to interact with people in a variety of circumstances and will learn general protocols for visiting different types of facilities, such as hospitals, nursing homes or rehab centers. At the end, we’ll be evaluated in order to become registered with Canines for Service.

So you see, there are several ways to go about becoming a therapy dog. Although they may differ slightly, whichever organization you choose to go through will have much the same requirements as all the others. The American Kennel Club maintains a list of national therapy dog organizations and groups all over the U.S. that offer registration or certification and sometimes instruction.

What Does My Dog Need to Know?

All of the therapy dog programs I’ve encountered require that a dog has passed the Canine Good Citizen test to get started, so your dog needs to sit, down, come, stay, be willing to be approached by a friendly stranger, “sit politely for petting,” walk on a loose lead, and behave politely around another dog, among other things. What I discovered when I went for Ruthie’s CGC is that things that she does automatically at home, when I have a treat in my hand, she doesn’t do as quickly or reliably in a strange environment when no treats are allowed. She sat, but not instantly like she does at home. I had to ask her several times to stay, and for a moment she acted as though she had never heard “down” in her entire life. Thank goodness she remembered, but I wished I had worked with her more ahead of time to ensure her success, in part because she would have felt more confident if I had. So you want to practice all of the CGC requirements in different environments in order to have a really strong performance for the CGC test.

Another thing I discovered is that Ruthie has what I’ll call a “small dog habit” that we have to break her of before she’ll pass the therapy dog evaluation. Large, and probably even medium-sized, dogs learn pretty early on that they can’t jump up on everyone they meet. Ruthie, on the other hand, often puts her little feet up on people she meets and asks to be picked up. And for her entire life, people have rewarded her for doing so, often with delight that she asked so endearingly.

When you weigh less than 8 pounds, jumping up on someone’s leg isn’t so offensive. But therapy dogs, no matter the size, absolutely cannot jump up on people. It’s a rule that makes perfect sense when you think of a large dog jumping up on a child, or a frail senior citizen in a nursing home, and possibly knocking them down. But the other reason therapy dogs can’t jump up on people is because not everyone is immediately comfortable being approached by a dog, so your therapy dog has to sit politely until the person she’s visiting invites her to approach. We’ve got some work to do to retrain Ruthie to sit for a treat when she approaches people, instead of putting her paws up on their legs.

Every therapy dog program I’ve encountered so far also requires its participants to have had a medical screening by a veterinarian, and to have a clean bill of health and be up-to-date on vaccinations. Naturally your dog must be clean, well-groomed and “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” as they say, in order to be a therapy dog.

These are just a few of the things I’ve learned about being prepared to go to therapy dog school. Over the next two months, Ruthie and I will be practicing down and down-stay, as well as a little technique Christie suggested for persuading Ruthie to sit for a treat when she approaches friendly people, instead of jumping up on their legs. When our class resumes in March, we’ll be that much more ready to become a successful therapy team.

Written by

Christi McDonald is a second-generation dog person, raised with a kennel full of Cairn Terriers. After more than a decade as a professional handler’s apprentice and handling professionally on her own, primarily Poodles and Cairns, she landed a fortuitous position in advertising sales with the monthly all-breed magazine ShowSight. This led to an 11-year run at Dogs in Review, where she wore several hats, including advertising sales rep, ad sales manager and, finally, editor for five years. Christi is proud to be part of the editorial team for the cutting-edge Best In Show Daily. She lives in Apex, N.C., with two homebred black Toy Poodles, the last of her Foxfire line, and a Norwich Terrier.