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Karen B. London
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Visiting a Therapy Dog Class
Strangers with a purpose
Greeting Susan Zucker and her dog Hancock

My family was recently invited to attend a dog therapy class. The goal was to provide the dogs an opportunity to practice being on their best, most friendly behavior when presented with strangers, even if those strangers were behaving in unusual ways. We were particularly welcome visitors because our family includes two boys, ages 7 and 8. Finding parents willing to bring their young kids around dogs to help them practice handling excitement is not easy. (Go figure.)

I trust the trainer, Liz Tallman, and knew that the dogs in class were going to be trustworthy around kids, though of course I reserved the right to take my kids out of any situation that made me uncomfortable. Our first step was to meet each of the dogs outside as a family. My kids were instructed to call out from a distance, “May we pet your dog?” and then we all approached when given permission. Our job was to greet the dogs exuberantly, but politely. So, we talked at high volume and petted the dogs vigorously, but we did not try to hug them, ride them, stare into their eyes or anything else that the dogs were likely to dislike.

Once the dogs had each met us and hopefully learned that we were nice, we had each of the dogs come to visit the whole family one by one in the training room. I sat in a wheelchair to help the dogs learn to be comfortable around wheelchairs and also to pay attention to the “patient” rather than the other people in the room. My kids were instructed to leap around, yell a bit, run, hop, and generally act like kids who have been cooped up for awhile. (They asked for clarification on this: “You mean you WANT us to misbehave around the dogs, and do all the things we’re usually not supposed to? Is this a trick?”)

We adjusted our behavior with each dog. In some cases, if a dog seemed a little hesitant to approach, I fed the dog treats to help develop happy associations with wheelchairs. For other dogs, my kids were asked to tone it down a bit, or even to go more crazy if the dog was ready to practice being in those situations. In all cases, the goal was to work on teaching the dog to approach the patient first and present its body in a way that made petting easy. One small dog was even lifted onto my lap after I was asked if that was okay. Only after the pretend therapy with me (the pretend patient) was the dog invited to greet the rest of my family.

It was a wonderful experience and I highly recommend accepting such an opportunity if it presents itself to you. (Do make sure that the trainer would know if a dog could not handle such a situation.) We had a great time and look forward to participating in future classes.

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

photo by Carol Kruse

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