Training Those Amazing Therapy Dogs

If you’ve ever seen a therapy dog in action, you know these special canines are well-behaved and sensitive to their owners’ needs, but they have many special skills and qualities in addition to these basic ones.

While their training isn’t quite as rigorous as that of service dogs, most therapy dogs must pass a test similar to or more difficult than the American Kennel Club’s Good Citizen Canine test.

If you’ve ever wondered what distinguishes a therapy dog from the rest of the pack, check out the following eleven tests established by the American Kennel Club and Therapy Dogs International. You might be surprised at some of the abilities possessed by these animals and the hard work required for them to become successful therapy dogs.  

1. Accepting a Friendly Stranger
This test demonstrates that a dog won’t break position to interact with a stranger who has approached him and his owner. It is best conducted around medical equipment to ensure that the dog doesn’t react negatively to this type of environmental stimulus. If you have a dog, you know how difficult such training can be – dogs love to “check out” strangers to make sure that they’re okay for interaction, so to pass this test, dogs must learn to control their instincts.

2. Sitting Politely for Petting
Dogs must not show any signs of shyness or resentment when being petted by friendly strangers – and that’s another learned behavior that directly counteracts their instincts. A dog’s desire to please and help humans must be greater than its natural urge to act cautiously around unfamiliar people, and that’s part of what makes a great therapy dog. 

3. Appearance & Grooming
During this test, a dog must allow a friendly stranger to brush his coat and perform a gentle examination – this mainly benefits veterinarians, but grooming a dog can be good for people receiving animal-assisted therapy. Studies have shown that brushing a pet can lower a person’s blood pressure and have an overall relaxing effect. 

4. Out for a Walk (Loose)
In this exercise, the owner takes a short walk and makes at least one right, one left, and one about-face turn, making sure that the dog follows without hesitation. This demonstrates the dog’s willingness to take direction from the handler – essential in case something goes awry. 

5. Walking Through a Crowd
Because a good deal of animal-assisted therapy takes place in hospitals, nursing homes, and other busy places, a dog must be able to behave well in a crowd. Being among so many strangers is overwhelming for most dogs, and the typical reaction is to show aggression or run away. A therapy dog, however, must remain calm and refuse to break position, following the direction of his owner at all times. He also must be open to contact from strangers who might brush past him, never showing aggression or aversion. 

6. Sit & Down on Command/Staying in Place
A therapy dog must sit, lie down, and stay on command while his owner walks at least 20 feet away from him. A dog’s natural tendency is to follow his owner, but there are some situations that may require a dog to stay a reasonable distance away while remaining well behaved. For example, a dog’s owner may need to leave the room to answer a private phone call. 

7. Coming when Called
This test makes sure that the dog will respond immediately when his owner calls him away from distractions, such as being petted by someone else, from a distance of at least ten feet. Again, absolute control is important for the owner of a therapy dog, so the dog should show no reluctance when called. 

8. Reactions to Other Dogs
Therapy dogs often make group visits and encounter other dogs during the course of their work. To make sure there won’t be any disturbances due to the therapy dog’s interactions with other canines, he must pass this test: two owners with dogs walk toward one another and stop to shake hands and chat for a few minutes before moving on. The prospective therapy dogs must show no more than a slight interest in one another and should not break position. 

9. Reactions to Distractions
Without showing aggression, barking, or appearing to be panicked, a dog must be able to sit while a jogger passes, a book is dropped, and through other such distractions. The dog must also refuse to react when approached by a person with an irregular gait, heavy breathing, or other unusual qualities related to illness. The dog also must be able to obey a “leave it” command with food involved.

10. Supervised Separation
Some dogs experience a form of “separation anxiety” when their owners leave, but a therapy dog must be able to stay in the hands of a friendly stranger for at least three minutes without showing aggression or agitation.

11. Saying Hello
Finally, therapy dog candidates must calmly accept petting – smaller dogs must be comfortable sitting in the laps of friendly strangers, and larger dogs must calmly sit on chairs or stand next to people participating in the animal-assisted therapy session. They must never react to children with hostility and must be able to maintain their positions even during noisy or chaotic sessions with children present. 

As this rigorous training regimen suggests, a therapy dog must have a kind and gentle demeanor, behave extraordinarily well at all times, and be single-mindedly devoted to serving his owner and providing therapy to strangers who need it. This is no easy feat, so the next time you see a therapy dog in action, consider with respect all the work he has done in order to be of service to humanity. 

Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education, doing researching and blogging about student life issues. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.