Therapy dogs are amazing animals who visit in nursing homes, hospitals, summer camps and programs for children with disabilities. Hailing from many different breeds, what all therapy dogs have in common is a gentle demeanor, good obedience skills and a genuine love for people that extends even to strangers. Therapy dogs are confident, friendly, affectionate, gentle and have no history of aggression.
Characteristics of Therapy Dogs
What makes a good therapy dog? A dog who loves to make new human friends, does not startle easily, and is very tolerant of petting and handling by strangers has good therapy dog potential. Not all therapy dogs are naturally calm and quiet. Younger and high energy dogs may need a good run or long walk before they are calmed down enough for therapy work.
Therapy ARC stands for Animals Reaching Clients. TherapyARC has provided pet therapy services to the Nashville community since 2001. The organization currently has pet-partner teams visiting regularly at over sixty facilities in Williamson, Davidson, Sumner, and Wilson Counties. Therapy ARC pet partners are certified by the Delta Society, newly renamed Pet Partners. TherapyARC has licensed evaluators on staff to help with Pet Partner certification testing.
Therapy Dog Initial Assessment
Before being accepted to a Pet Partner training class, each dog must pass an individual assessment by an experienced volunteer. You will bring your pet to a public place like a shopping mall, where the volunteer will interact with your dog and assess the skills your dog already possesses.
Group Training Class
Pet Partners has trained and certified therapy dogs for many years. The first step in training is to take a group class with your dog. This generally requires attending an evening class for 10 weeks. In the class, you will learn about rules and procedures for doing pet therapy. Most of the class, however, is dedicated to helping your dog build the skills he will need to pass the certification test. Participants have the opportunity to both observe and practice each step of the certification process. At the end of the course, an evaluation will be scheduled so the trainer can interact with you and your dog to assess your readiness for pet therapy work.
Part of the therapy dog class with TherapyARC includes a field trip to a local nursing home where you can experience a therapy dog visit firsthand. Mentoring consists of two consecutive Saturdays where you will visit with an experienced Pet Partner team to mentor you. The first visit you will observe your mentor and her dog interacting with residents. On the second visit, you and your dog will interact with residents while your mentor observes and provides feedback.
Pet Partners therapy certification consists of two different sets of exercises. The first half of the evaluation is called the Pet Partner Skills Test and includes basic obedience such as “sit”, “stay”, “come” and “leave it”. The second half of the evaluation is the Pet Partners Aptitude Test. The goal of the PPAT is to observe how you and your dog handle scenarios that are likely to occur in the therapy experience such as loud noises, clumsy petting, and being approached by multiple people at the same time. See the attached list for a detailed description of each exercise in the evaluation.
Small Dogs and Cats
Cats and small dogs go through a similar training and certification process. See the next article for details on how the process is different when training smaller animals for pet therapy.
Before your evaluation, there are several forms to complete. Your veterinarian has to complete several pages describing a thorough physical exam of your dog, including a fecal exam and the most recent date of flea prevention medication. Your dog must also be spayed or neutered and up to date on vaccinations.
Accepting a Friendly Stranger
For this exercise, a volunteer will approach your team and extend a friendly hand to shake. Your dog should remain calmly at your side and is allowed to change position so long as he does not get up and move away.
Now the same person will reach down to pet your dog. A good therapy dog will sit or stand quietly and allow the stranger to pet him. You can earn extra points if the dog shows clear pleasure in the attention he is getting from this stranger.
Appearance and Grooming
The night before your evaluation, give your dog a thorough bath so he will be ready for this step in the process. The evaluator will visually examine your dog, looking for a clean, healthy animal. Your dog should tolerate being brushed by the evaluator. You will need to bring a brush with you for this exercise.
Out for a Walk
This simple exercise requires you to walk your dog on a loose leash. A good therapy dog should walk in a relaxed manner at your side. There should be no pulling on the leash. In pet therapy settings, you should always enter a doorway before your dog. As the human partner it is your job to assess each new environment so you can prepare your dog for whatever awaits.
Walk Through a Crowd
As you walk your dog on a loose leash, at least three volunteers will walk around you, not directly blocking your path, just passing nearby at the same time. A good therapy dog does not alert at the sight or presence of friendly strangers. The evaluator will be watching to see if your dog shows anxiety when crowded. Often one of the volunteers will be pushing a wheelchair. Since wheelchairs are common in hospitals and nursing homes, it is important for your dog to feel comfortable around them.
Reaction to Distractions
Typically for this exercise a volunteer will drop a heavy book from standing level to the floor behind you. Your dog should not jump or flinch from the sound or sight of the book falling.
Sit on Command
Your dog must “sit” in response to your verbal command. You may repeat the “sit” command no more than 3 times before your dog complies. For a deaf dog, a hand-sign may be used in place of a verbal command.
Down on Command
Your dog should follow your verbal command for “down” within no more than 3 attempts. If you are not sure how to teach your dog “down”, the trainers in your group class can assist you with mastering this command.
Stay in Place
For this exercise, you will be given a 10 foot leash to use with your dog. The dog begins by following you on a normal walk. When you turn back and give the “stay” command, your dog must sit and pause for at least 2-3 seconds, waiting for your signal before moving forward. As with the other commands, you have three attempts to demonstrate “stay” with your dog.
Come When Called
After “stay” is completed, your dog must come to you when called by name. This is usually the easiest command. Any dog who has a close and loving bond with his owner is usually glad to come when called.
If a pet partner team is not going to pass the evaluation, the Neutral Dog exercise is where many dogs struggle. An already certified therapy dog will be walked by his owner up to you and your dog. A good therapy dog will not approach the strange dog at all. Your dog may turn his head toward the strange dog, but no playing or growling is allowed. It is difficult for many dogs to handle the neutral dog’s presence without a reaction.
The first step in the temperament evaluation is an overall examination. Your dog should remain still and calm, not reacting as the evaluator touches your dog. Much like a veterinary exam, the evaluator will touch your dog’s back, legs, tail, head and mouth. Your dog should not flinch or growl at any point. A good therapy dog is calm and relaxed, trusting that his human partner will not bring him into an unsafe situation.
2) Clumsy Petting – A volunteer will pet your dog awkwardly, even petting backwards. This prepares your dog for nursing home residents and special needs children who may not have the same motor control or dog experience as the average person.
3) Restraining Hug – Your dog will be hugged close enough to prevent escape, but not tight enough to hurt or cause extreme discomfort. Your dog should be relaxed and unconcerned by close physical contact from a stranger.
4) Staggering/Gesturing – A person will approach your dog, stagger for a moment, then regain control and come forward to pet your dog. A good therapy dog will not react in any way to the unsteady person.
For this exercise, a volunteer will yell angrily at another person across the room. Then the yelling person will calm down and approach your dog, saying his name and petting him. A good therapy dog will remain calm, trusting that his human will not allow him to be in danger.
Bumped from Behind
While you are walking normally with your dog, a volunteer will bump into you from behind. A good therapy dog should not startle and calmly follow your lead, showing neither aggression nor fear.
Crowded and Petted by Several People
In most pet therapy settings there are large numbers of people. While some visiting is done in patient rooms individually, your dog may also be approached by small groups of people. At least three volunteers will crowd around your dog, petting and talking to him. Your dog should remain calm and show pleasure from all the attention.
“Leave it” is an important command for therapy dogs because in school and healthcare settings, you never know what you may find on the floor. To pass this exercise, the evaluator will toss a toy in front of your dog. The dog is allowed to sniff the toy, but must not pick it up when told to “Leave It”.
This is one of the easiest exercises to pass. The evaluator will offer your dog a treat in an open palm. Your dog should take the treat gently from the offered hand and eat it. If your dog has special dietary needs, you can bring your own treats. While visiting, some people may want to give your dog a treat. You will need to bring a small supply of treats with you on visits for this purpose. If a person offers to give your dog something to eat that may not be healthy for your dog to eat, you can offer to let the person feed your dog a treat instead.
Throughout all of the interactions so far with volunteer patients, the evaluator will be watching how you as the handler interact with these strangers. A proactive handler will approach people on their own and offer to let people pet the dog. A reactive handler will hang back and wait for people to approach you. Proactive handlers do a lot of talking, asking the strangers about themselves, explaining your dog’s favorite ways to be petted, reassuring the strangers that your dog is gentle and safe. Reactive handlers may act unsure of what to do and not know what to say to the volunteer patients. This assessment determines whether you and your dog will be qualified for Predictable environments or Complex and unpredictable environments. This designation will appear on your pet therapy ID and determines what kinds of settings you can choose to do pet therapy.