Work of Dogs
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Dog Assisted Therapy: Is Your Dog a Good Fit?
Lending a Helping Paw


Is your dog a good fit for therapy duty?

“He’d be perfect as a therapy dog — perfect. You just have to help me stop him from biting so much.”

I wish I could say I’m making this up, but yes, I did have a client who said that, and yes, he truly thought his dog could be a great therapy dog. My client had the best of intentions, but it took a while to convince him that his pathologically shy and potentially dangerous dog was no better suited to therapy work than I am to being a ballerina.

However, a multitude of dogs are just what the doctor ordered, and it makes my heart all warm and gooey to think of the great work they do. Currently, an estimated 30,000 teams of what are called therapy dogs and handlers are certified through Delta Pet Partners and Therapy Dogs International, and there is little doubt that they are enriching the lives of thousands of people across the country.

A good dog-and-handler team does a lot more than just make people feel fleetingly happy. True therapy dogs — dogs who participate in structured programs designed by health care professionals (Animal Assisted Therapy, or AAT) — can decrease pain, improve mobility, speed up post-surgery healing and even calm autistic children as well as increasing their social interactions. That’s a pretty impressive body of work, and it is just the short list. A larger number of dogs and handlers participate in what are called Animal Assisted Activities (AAA), in which teams visit hospitalized children and senior-center residents. The petting, tricks and furry companionship can stimulate the release of massive quantities of the world’s greatest drug, the neurohormone oxytocin.

Another benefit: AAT and AAA can be as good for the providers as the recipients. Take it from me — watching a senior citizen glow while petting your dog and talking about the special pup she owned 70 years ago is guaranteed to put you in a good mood that lasts for hours.

However, you need to leave your rose-colored glasses at home if you and your dog are involved in AAT or AAA (I’m just going to call it “therapy” from now on, as long as we all understand that I’m using the term loosely). Just because you love your dog doesn’t mean everyone in a nursing home will want to meet her. Plus, your dog may actually hate the work, even though it wraps you in your own haze of oxytocin. In addition, your beloved dog may come home with an antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA, which is commonly found in health-care facilities.

In other words, there’s a lot to learn about doing this work in a way that is truly helpful to others, safe for everyone involved and, as importantly, enjoyable for your dog. In this article, I’ll be focusing on the dogs, because, well, they pretty much drive the system.

Job Qualifications
Let’s start, then, with a question: Which dogs are appropriate for AAT and AAA? Answer: Not many. Ouch. Sorry, but the fact is that therapy work can be tiring and stressful for many dogs, and some dogs have personalities that take them out of the running even though they would love to be on the team. My Border Collie, Willie, might be a good therapy dog when he’s 10 or so, but right now, he’s simply too much dog to visit vulnerable populations. I describe his greeting behavior as that of an adolescent Golden Retriever in a tuxedo (my apologies to Goldens, but I suspect you all now know exactly how he behaves, right?). Oh, he keeps all four feet on the ground, but in his enthusiasm to meet new people, he still quivers and licks and thrashes his tail around like some crazed dishrag on drugs. He’s a good reminder that no matter how much you love your dog, he or she may not be a candidate for therapy work, at least not now.



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Submitted by Frances | November 7 2012 |

Thank you! You have convinced me that I really should proceed with seeking PAT (Pets as Therapy, the UK scheme) accreditation for my Papillon, Sophy, but that I am right to feel that Toy Poodle Poppy would find it just too stressful. Sophy looks at faces, reads them better than I can, then approaches cheerfully and gently if she decides people want to greet her. She loves elderly people in particular - perhaps because so many of the ones she knows always have a pocketful of treats! Poppy likes to watch from the sidelines until she is very sure about a situation... With such a small dog, Nursing Homes are probably the safest environment - but in the UK that is also where there is the greatest demand for visits from pets.

Submitted by Russell Hartstein | November 8 2012 |

I find it amusing and disconcerting when a friend or client comes to me and calls their dog a therapy dog or service dog and then I find out the dog is aggressive to other dogs or people. The abuse of these titles are rampant, unethical and immoral.


Russell Hartstein CPDT dog trainer Miami

Submitted by Susan & Thumper... | January 14 2013 |

After reading "Lending a Helping Paw" I saw/heard so many familiar things I had to write. I have a pup that I started training at 4 mts old for the test, the dog must be one year to test, Thumper tested with two Therapy Dog Organizations (I was not sure which one I wanted to join). I was surprised how many people just showed up to test with no formal training with their dogs, hearing "I know my dog would make a good Therapy Dog", with no formal training I wondered how they could they possible tell their dog is enjoying the work and it is work. I learned to read body language, see if panting, pacing, etc. Or how to approach a wheelchair or ride in an elevator. Not to mention each visit your dog has to be clean, nails short, proof of UTD on all vaccinations and the human has to get TB Tested, Blood work, Flu shot, tetanus shot just to come to the hospital. I am blessed that my dog loves it, once he see's the gear coming out he lines up to proudly wears his Therapy Dog Vest!

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