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Dog Assisted Therapy: Is Your Dog a Good Fit?
Is your dog a good fit for therapy duty?

Here are some criteria to consider when asking if your dog is suitable for therapy work. The most important job qualification is that the dog loves people, absolutely and completely. That doesn’t mean your dog lights up when you come home, and tolerates visitors. I’ve seen and heard of numerous dogs in AAT who adored their guardians — but strangers? Not so much. I’ve also watched a dog and her guardian spend an entire “therapy” session communing with one another in a nursing home. That’s not therapy, that’s a woman petting her dog while others watch. It might be useful in some circumstances, but most often, the dog needs to voluntarily approach strangers, make eye contact with them and put forth an effort to get close to them.

It’s important to distinguish these dogs from dogs who merely tolerate strangers. Willie’s response to people walking toward the house is: “Oh look! There’s another one! Can you believe it?” I get the impression he thinks that people are as rare as huge, juicy beef bones, and he just can’t believe his luck — they keep turning up randomly when he least expects them. So while he’d fill the “loves everyone” bill, he’d, uh, most likely knock the senior citizen out of her wheelchair with his tail.

Which brings us to the difference between manners and personality. Willie is trained to greet people politely, but I can’t expect him to leave his personality in the crate. Therapy dogs need to be calm — dogs who don’t slap senior citizens with their tails or pull IVs out of patients’ arms. The level of acceptable activity can vary depending on where and when the dog is working, but a calm demeanor goes beyond good training.

People who most benefit from a dose of oxytocin are often frail or otherwise physically compromised, and the dogs they interact with can’t emote all over them, forcing them to protect their face or their shoulder or their new hip. This is one reason so many dogs do well when they are older, even though they may have flunked the certification test when they were younger. If your dog was dismissed as too active to work in the Children’s Hospital when he was three, you might want to try again when he’s eight or 10, after he’s slowed down and is a little calmer about life in general.

Besides being physically calm, dogs need to be emotionally calm. That means they don’t go all pancake-eyed when someone grabs their head, or panic if a metal tray is dropped behind them. Essentially, a good therapy dog needs to behave in ways that most dogs don’t: unfazed when a child hugs them a little too hard before you can intervene, unreactive when the Alzheimer patient tries to grab their ears and screams when you step in. Can some nervous dogs be conditioned to be comfortable when “life happens”? Yes, they can; I know of several dogs who were originally terrified of strangers and ended up as great therapy dogs. But that’s the exception, not the rule. It’s a fool’s errand to try to make a reactive dog into a good therapy dog while he’s in treatment himself, and it’s not safe or respectful to anyone to try to make a “regular” dog into a one-in-a-million one.

This is a problem I’ve seen a bit too often: guardians whose dogs may have good reasons for being cautious or nippy, but who still insist that “it’s not the dog’s fault, and if everyone would just learn to be appropriate around dogs, he’d be perfect.” That’s pretty much the point here: people won’t be perfect, guaranteed. In the normal run of things, they never are, and in the case of therapy, they often will be worse. The children will be crazed to finally see a dog like the one they have at home and won’t understand why they can’t hug Maxi so hard that Maxi can’t breathe. Some seniors will sit quietly stroking Chief, but others will get a death grip on the sides of his head and kiss his lips before you can stop them.

For everyone’s sake, including your own, you don’t want Maxi and Chief to be dogs that just barely tolerate this kind of treatment. Those dogs may be “fine” (i.e., they don’t bite) the first time or two, but they might not be the third or fourth. Even if they don’t object, forcing them to tolerate this sort of behavior could be considered abusive. You need a dog who really, truly doesn’t care if he’s hugged or his tail is pulled. Those dogs are out there, but they are less common than many of us like to think.

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