Nearly every day, in the AKC Canine Good Citizen department, we receive calls from dog owners who want to have their dogs certified as therapy dogs.
The first step is to provide your dog with basic training. Therapy dog organizations often require the Canine Good Citizen Test as part of their screening. After getting certified through a therapy dog organization, you and your dog are ready to get the approval to visit from the setting of your choice whether it is a school, nursing home, or classroom for children with autism.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately of two of my past therapy dogs. Laddie was a large, mostly white Border Collie and he provided me with my introduction to animal assisted therapy. With a Utility title in obedience, he knew nearly 200 commands. But Laddie had far more than training going for him. He was a natural when it came to therapy work. I gave talks on animal-assisted therapy to psychology classes at Florida State University. I would ask if anyone was dog phobic and once I knew the students all liked dogs, I would say to Laddie, “Go say hello.” He would systematically go up and down the rows of desks stopping to greet each and every student. I never taught him that. He just did it.
And then there was Sarge, my dear, sweet Welsh Springer Spaniel. I loved that little dog and he loved me. Wanting to share his goodness with others, I went through the process to have him certified as a therapy dog. We attended a class for therapy dogs and Sarge was soon steady around people who moved with unusual gaits, loud noises, wheelchairs, and other health care equipment.
Ready for our first visit, we showed up at a nursing home and went into a day room where 20 elderly residents sat in their wheelchairs. It didn’t take me long to figure out that Sarge wanted to be a therapy dog, but he wanted to be a therapy dog for me and no one else. He gave me a look as if to say, “No thank you, I don’t really want to meet these people.” For me, it stung a little bit, but I had to do the right thing by my dog, and by the people we visited. They deserve to have a dog who wants to be there. I chose to retire Sarge from therapy work except for when I worked with only one abused child at a time.
Have any of you worked with a therapy dog? What do you think the characteristics are that make a good therapy dog?