Therapy Dogs

What do therapy dogs do? Can your dog become one?

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #132

Therapy Dogs Need Good Manners

You and your dog will take a class in which you teach him the manners he needs for therapy visits – for instance, greeting people without jumping up, walking politely on leash through crowded indoor spaces, and turning away from spilled food on your cue. You’ll also learn to look out for your dog’s stress signals and well-being. For instance, a therapy dog shouldn’t growl or snap if a socially clumsy person pulls her ear -- but she isn’t there to endure repeated yanks, either. Therapy visits are supposed to be pleasant for the dog as well as for the people she visits. A good handler may gently redirect the clumsy person or take his dog out of the situation.

Therapy Dog Groups Help Place Teams Appropriately

Finally, you’ll learn how to prepare your dog for visits (you may need to give her a bath and trim her nails), what kinds of needs different client populations may have, and what confidentiality rules apply to your work. And the certifying group can guide you and your dog to an appropriate placement. For instance, a friendly dog who’s on the wiggly side might knock down frail elderly people, so she may not be the best suited to visit nursing homes. That same dog might be a perfect choice to visit a group home for developmentally disabled but physically healthy young men.

What Therapy Dog Visits Are Like

For a first-person account, I asked my friend Susan, whose mixed-breed dog, Alfie, was recently certified as a therapy dog and visits a group home for severely disabled men. To protect the men’s privacy, I’ve changed everybody’s name and disguised some other identifying details.

Alfie’s First Visit

“Alfie had his first visit as a therapy dog tonight!  Most of the men at the home are non-verbal and non-ambulatory, and a few need feeding tubes.  Alfie was a little overwhelmed when we got there -- a little whiny, his tail was down, and his pupils were incredibly dilated.

“I considered aborting because he looked so stressed, but the two attendants were nice and he responded well to them. The [therapy dog group] coordinator called him and petted him too, and then he started to relax.  


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).