Among the most common goals of active, involved dog owners is to certify their dog as a therapy dog and do therapy work with elderly people, children, veterans, or people with disabilities. Therapy dogs can help people heal, both physically and mentally. The benefits of petting a dog include lower blood pressure, reduced stress levels, and, for people with mobility impairments, the physical therapy of repetitive arm and hand movement, without the pain and boredom of most physical therapy exercises.
But not every dog is suited to be a therapy dog. Some dogs don’t have the temperament for the job; others are physically unable to take on the hard work of greeting dozens of people in a day, climbing stairs, jumping onto hospital beds or into the laps of wheelchair users (on cue and by the patient’s request only, of course), and walking on tile or cement floors for hours at a time. This post will help you begin the process of determining whether or not your pet is therapy dog material.
The best therapy dogs aren’t necessarily the calmest dogs. Dogs who are ultra-mellow at home may shrink from the “social butterfly” aspect of therapy work. However, high-energy dogs also are not always suited for therapy work. Nursing home patients probably wouldn’t appreciate a visit from a Border Collie spinning in circles and begging for someone, anyone, to throw him a tennis ball. If you can answer “yes” to all of the following questions, you’ve got a potential therapy dog:
- Has your dog learned bite inhibition?
- Does your dog consistently greet strangers in a friendly but calm manner, accepting and enjoying petting without demanding it?
- Has your dog completed at least a basic obedience class?
- Is your dog absolutely 100% house-trained?
- Does your dog react well to new and unusual sights, sounds, and smells? He or she should be curious, but neither fearful nor inclined to drag you to investigate the new stimulus.
- Has your dog been exposed to canes, wheelchairs, walkers, people of different races, and at least 100 different people and 100 different dogs throughout the course of its training and socialization?
- Does your dog react to being petted too hard or the wrong way by calmly stepping away, and never by growling or biting?
A therapy dog must be fairly physically healthy as well as behaviorally sound. While a dog with a disability can be quite an inspiration to people with similar conditions, it’s not fair to cause pain or discomfort to a dog by expecting it to perform therapy work if it’s not physically well enough. Once again, if you can say “yes” to all these questions, you might have a potential therapy dog:
- Can your dog stand, walk, sit, and lie down on a hard surface with no cushion, repeatedly, for a few hours at a time?
- Is your dog able to sit up and put its paws on a bed or wheelchair to greet someone unable to reach down– or in the case of small dogs, can it leap onto a bed or lap, or tolerate being lifted there by you?
- Can your dog be petted firmly without experiencing pain?
- Is your dog free of any medication that might alter behavior or toileting habits?
- Is your dog able to focus on a task for some time without many breaks, without becoming exhausted?