Before we look at what skills a good therapy dog will need it is important to note that a therapy dog is NOT a service dog. Service dogs train for months or more to perfect skills need to assist a person with specific disabilities. That may be as a diabetic or seizure alert dog, a guide for a person with visual disability or a physical assistant to someone with some physical handicaps. Under the law, service dogs have certain rights such as being in a restaurant, riding in the cabin on an airplane, etc that are not rights for therapy dogs. Please do not “fake” your show dog out as a service dog simply for convenience. It is fraud and could be damaging for people for truly need service dogs.
Back to our stunning show dogs who want a second career as therapy dogs. There will be minimal training required for the most part. The AKC’s Canine Good Citizen program is the basis for most therapy dog certifications.
Most therapy groups require a dog to demonstrate basic obedience and good manners. So your dog should sit and down on command and walk nicely on a leash. (See our puppy training articles for ways to do this with food and fun). Jumping up is discouraged, as is licking people (though there are exceptions on occasion).
Your dog will be tested around people to see if he tolerates – and hopefully actually likes! – contact with people. He should allow a stranger to pet him, groom him and handle his feet or muzzle. This should be a piece of cake for your average conformation dog. Depending on the facility and program you are gearing towards volunteering at, your dog may be required to show his solid temperament around children or hospital equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers and IV poles.
Programs require that your dog ignore or respond in a quiet but positive way to other animals, primarily dogs. You may work and visit alone in some programs but you often will at least meet up with a group before you go off on your own. A few facilities may have in-house pets that your dog will need to get along with.
An important skill is to have a “leave it” command. This could save your dog’s life if a patient’s medication is on the floor and your dog is attracted to the pill. Most show dogs have learned to ignore bait left in the rings so this should be another easy test.
Some of the certifying organizations will require you to pass muster as well. You may be required to take a test and do some studying on reading stress signs in people and dogs, how to handle certain personalities on your visits, acquainting you with some health conditions, etc. Don’t worry – there are excellent resources and classes available for you and your dog! (Part 4 will cover many of the main therapy dog organizations).
It is certainly not a requirement but a dog who is willing to wear a costume (hats and bandanas count) is a plus. Both children and seniors love the fun of a holiday outfit on a dog. Knowing some clever tricks is also a bonus. Any dog can quickly learn to shake. Spins and twirls are fun and even basic moves like backing up or rolling over tend to be big hits. If your dog pulls a cart, you can decorate the cart for holidays too.
A funny story here. My friend’s gorgeous young male Golden Retriever was a favorite at one facility we visited. Doulton loved everyone in typical Golden fashion. On this particular day, the facility was celebrating a big anniversary. A huge cake was sitting on a cart we had to pass by. As we walked on past after oohing and aahing at this magnificent cake, we realized Doulton had frosting on his nose! A quick glance showed a clear streak along the lowest layer where he had swiped the frosting. We did a quick repair with some tissues and covered the bare spot. Later we heard the cake was a huge success (and no one mentioned an area lacking in frosting!)