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How to Get Your Dog to be a Therapy Dog

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Get Your Dog to be a Therapy Dog

Steps and tips for how to get your dog to be a therapy dog. Photo by Deb, Flickr

Steps and tips for how to get your dog to be a therapy dog.

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

Visiting hospitals, nursing homes, and group homes with your pet through an animal assisted therapy program will not only improve the well-being of patients, but also bring you a great deal of satisfaction. Studies show that contact with pets does more than just make people feel better. It can have significant health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and cortisol levels. Animals also give autistic children the ability to express themselves in a way they can’t with people and reduce aggressive behaviors in those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

By making the time commitment, gaining the necessary animal training skills, and having an exceptional pet, anyone can volunteer with an assisted animal therapy program. And don’t think that just because you don’t have the usual pet dog or cat that you can’t volunteer. Whether you have a parrot, rabbit, llama, or pony, if your animal can pass the animal therapy training certification test, you can visit hospitals and other medical facilities.

Getting Started in Pet Assisted Therapy

Although hospitals and other medical facilities know the value of visiting animals as therapy, hospitals will only accept those that work with a reputable pet assisted therapy organization. This is because the care staff knows that animals from these organizations have gone through an extensive evaluation and training program. To get started, you’ll need to volunteer with a local organization. You can find one in your region by looking at the Delta Society’s website or doing an internet search for “pet therapy” or “animal assisted therapy” and your city name. Then sign up to attend an orientation and shadow some pet therapy visits so you can familiarize yourself with the process.

Know Your Pet

You may think your pet is the best there ever was, but that doesn’t mean he’s cut out for pet therapy work. Pets that go to hospitals and other facilities have to remain calm and composed when faced with the unexpected, such as rolling beds and wheelchairs, confusing and jerky movements from people, and loud noises.

As a first step to getting to know if your pet really would be a good candidate for this type of work, take your pet to new places and watch his temperament. Biting, growling, and crouching or shivering in fear are not good signs and you may want to reconsider if your pet responds this way. Jumping on people, pulling on the leash while walking, and just overall being a handful are all behaviors that can be improved with training. If you find your pet tends to enjoy surprises, new environments, other pets, and all kinds of people, then he may make a great hospital or nursing home guest.

dog training bookBasic Obedience Training

Before entering a pet therapy certification program, you and your pet will need to get the basics down first. For therapy dog certification, dogs need to sit, come, heal, stay, leave it, and know “paws up” on command. “Paws up” is a basic pet therapy behavior where the dog places her front paws onto the bedside for the patient to pet her.

Rabbits, cats, guinea pigs, rats and other small mammals need experience being passed around to different people. Parrots must step up on command, willingly go to different people, and stay on a travel perch when requested. Ponies, llamas, and other small livestock will need many of the same basic behaviors as dogs. You can start training these behaviors at home and professional trainer and then venture out to new environments to practice.

Advanced Training for Therapy Dogs and Other Pets

Once your pet has the basics down, you’ll start advance training with your pet assisted therapy organization. Here you and your pet will learn what kinds of situations you will encounter and how to handle those that you never expected. During classes, you and your pet will learn to keep composure and keep safe while experienced staff and volunteers act out different scenarios.

Animal Assisted Therapy Certification Test

The final step is to take and pass the organization’s animal therapy certification test or tests. Both you and your pet will be evaluated in real life situations. With an evaluator, you will be taken to a new environment with crowds with strangers that pet and/or hold your animal, loud noises, and other animals. Your pet will also be tested on how well he handles people coming up from behind, strong hugs, yelling, and people with staggering and jerking movements. You will also be tested on how well you handle your pet in each scenario.

Therapy dog training certification bookIt will take time to earn your therapy pet certification, but well worth the effort. Pet assisted therapy benefits everyone involved, from the most important–the patients–to you and your pet.

For more information, read the Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy.


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