How to qualify your pet for work as a therapy dog

3/27/94

Dear Dr. Spiegel,

I have a wonderful 2 year old female Golden Retriever named Sandy. She is loving, playful, energetic, intelligent, and a great companion. Her only problem is that she gets very excited and sometimes jumps when friends and family visit. Unfortunately she hasn't had a lot of people in her everyday life. However, she picked up obedience commands fairly quickly, cause the classes were fun and exciting, more like play than work. She knows lots of commands including sit, stay, come, get it, eat, drink, sleep, catch, heel, off, and down. I would like her to become a Therapy Dog. I know she would be a great TD because she loves people and enjoys going to new places. Could you go over the requirements in a future column? I would be interested to know if there are certain classes a dog/owner must go through, and if there issome kind of certification process involved.

M.F., Newark


Dear M.F.,

It sounds like you have a lovely dog. And your idea to get her into Pet-Facilitated-Therapy is equally admirable. The values of introducing well mannered, loving dogs into the lives of children, the elderly, and the physically, mentally, and emotionally impaired cannot be extolled more highly. The Delta Society and Therapy Dogs International have put together highly detailed guidelines for certification of licensed therapy dogs. Whether licensed or not, the basic principles involved in doing pet therapy work are:

Animals used should be examined and properly immunized by a Veterinarian, and determined to be healthy and free of parasites.

Animals should be well trained and temperamentally suitable.

Animals must be effectively controlled by leash or command.

All people in the program who may have access to the therapy dog should be questioned regarding allergies and phobias of animals.

Having dogs meet and pass the licensing requirements (Good Citizenship Test, temperament testing, etc.) is fairly new to the field, and there are many excellent unlicensed therapy dogs out there positively affecting peoples lives. The point is, while the certification process is good for the industry, a person who wants to get their loving pet involved should not view this as an obstacle and be discouraged from becoming a part of this highly rewarding field. All therapy dogs do not have to be licensed, though they should still meet the above criteria.

More detailed information can be obtained by contacting Therapy Dogs International 718-317-5804, The Delta Society 206-226-7357/ 800-869-6898, or Cheer-a-Pet, a Rehoboth based group which brings dogs and joy to theresidents of nursing homes in Delaware 855-1002.

Sandy sounds like she'd be a good candidate, but first you want to ease her excitement around people, and stop the jumping. First do lots of sit/stays with her by yourself around the door. Make it fun and use positive reinforcement (praise and intermittent food rewards). Include staying while you open and close the door, go out and come back in, etc. After a week of these, arrange for visitors to come. Put her in another room until they have come in and settled/seated themselves. Then let her out of the room, but avoid getting her excited by your voice or the things you say to her. When she's settled down, praise/pet her. Then do sit/stays as visitors leave and return. When she's mastered these, start setting up prearranged visits. Have her sit and stay as you open the door to let people in. Reward if she'sstayed; if not, modify visitor's entrance so it is less stimulating (moving less rapidly, not coming in as far, etc.). Work up to having her stay as they approach and pet her. In doing these, you may wish to get Sandy out for awalk or run to tire her out before your visitor arrives. She will be less excited and more likely to listen to you. When she's doing these well, progressively decrease the length of your walk to increase the level of energy she will bring to these exercises. Then you will be able to control her when she is excited as well as when she's calm/less distracted. Regular practice (twice daily) is ideal. A complete program to get your dog relaxed and under control in door-related situations is available upon request.

Good Luck!