“Do you think MY dog could do Therapy work?”

Posted: July 8, 2012 in At Home with dogs., Dog Training, Omorrow German Shepherds, Working Dogs

If I could get paid for every time I’ve been asked that question by an earnest, enthusiastic, new puppy owner, I’d be writing this post from the fan-tail of my 200′ mega-yacht in some Mediteranean Island harbor…

“Honey!…I’m Home!! Hoist the anchor!”

The enthusiasm and desire that you have for your new puppy is something wonderful!  Therapy dogs do wonderful things for people that  need  this type of contact and mental stimulation.  Wanting more for your dog than just staying in the house, and playing ball occassionally, is beyond mere words of commendation from me. My wife and I were of the same mind as you. Together, we  successfully completed the training, and regularly visit people.  There’s satisfaction in the work, and you will make many unexpected friends.  We’ve gotten involved in training dogs for therapy, as well as supporting a few organizations that govern and certify Therapy Dogs.  That will never cease…

Now, when people ask me, “Could my dog do Therapy work?”, I have a very different set of questions for them.  These questions are thought-provoking.  I want people to think about what they are asking…Your Attitude, your personal effort, will play a major role in your dogs success, or failure.

My first answer to this question is simple:  “Yes, absolutely!  Your dog is capable of learning the behaviors  required to become a certified Therapy dog.  Your puppy is ready to start training as soon as you get him/her home!”

Then, my questions begin.  “Are you willing to put in the time to socialize and train together?   In the honeymoon phase, this is always answered with an enthusiastic, “Oh Yes!  I’ve always wanted to do this! I love people, and this dog has the perfect temperament!”

  That is the perfect start to a long process ahead.  Get signed up for Puppy Socialization class, take your puppy everywhere that will allow you.  Expose your puppy gradually to all sorts of people.  Expose the pup to wheelchairs, rolling cabinets, any type of moving object that they might encounter.  Walk your pup over different types of floor surfaces as well.  Slippery, wet, dry, carpets, rubber mats, every type that you can find.  Teach them a few simple entertaining tricks that will delight the people they visit.

This is where we  jump off the “Training” necessary to a therapy dog.  The nuts and bolts of a Therapy dog if you’ll permit me.  I’ve come to believe wholeheartedly that what  “Dog Handlers” , (as opposed to “Dog Trainers” ) , do are two very different things.  Both disciplines opine that they do this, but I respectfully disagree.  What is it that I’m prattling on about??  Building Empathy and Emotional support.

Before you talented trainers jump all over me, let me explain something.  A trainer is someone who your dog sees once or twice a week.  You teach behaviors.  You give the dog a few treats.  You click at the dog.  You demonstrate to the owner, various techniques for getting the very best behavior from their dog.  Thank you!  You start  people and their dogs on a road to serving others. 

New owners:  You attend classes with a trainer, and you learn many wonderful things that qualify your dog to be called a “Therapy Dog”.  You take the time out of your busy life with the goal of being comforting to another human being.  There is only one higher calling than that.  Thank you!

(What’s he trying to say? You may be asking by now…)  Here’s the single most overlooked facet of being a “Therapy Dog HANDLER“.  They won’t teach it during your brief education.   It’s what separates true therapy work from being a circus dog owner.     

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Have YOU, as a human being, ever visited a convalescent home or children’s hospital ward on your own?  Held the hand of a terminally ill child and let them tell you about themselves?  Told them a silly story about yourself, just so they could laugh? Have you listened to an elderly man tell you about his dear wife that died 10 years ago, and let him tell you about his time overseas?  No One, save the example of Jesus Christ, can teach you true empathy, human kindness. 

  I know this is a strong thing to say, but my reasons for writing it are with good intention.   I’ve had the opportunity to observe Therapy dog owners and their dogs for quite a while now.  I’ve trained two dogs for myself.  My observation is this:  Some people get involved in “Therapy Dogs” for their own ego.  Others get involved and realize that there is much more going on than they anticipated.  They find themselves unprepared for the commitment.   The last group…Ahhh, the last group.  These are individuals that truly desire to help people thru the most difficult of times.  They live to make people smile.  They just happen to employ a dog in that endeavor.  To explain myself further, let me tell you about two different Therapy Dog Handlers of my acquaintance.  Both great dog people, both helping out  where they can. 

  The first is a young lady of about 25.  She has a very well-bred and trained German Short-hair Pointer named Rex.  She will enter a room with Rex and put on a show that would make any trainer envious.  The problem is this:  This young lady admits to being more interested in getting the word out that she is training dogs for a certain organization. She hands you her business card with a happy flourish.  Her dog rarely interacts with the people they visit and entertain.  But then, neither does she.  In fact, she is most uncomfortable with sick children, and the elderly.  By her own admission.  They just happen to be the end consumer of what she wants to teach others to do. 

  The second is an older lady of what age I’ve never asked.  I do know that she is a widow, having lost her husband to Alzheimer’s related problems five years ago, in one of the Care facilities she visits. We’ll call her Mary, because that’s her name. She tells me that while her husband descended into the forgetfulness of his disease, she came to be-friend many of the residents she saw while visiting.  Many of them had little or no family to visit them.  But Mary took time out to give small gifts, chat about lives remembered, and often, just be there.  Mary got to know another lady that brought her shelter rescue dog to the facility weekly.  Mary watched as the Pekinese/beagle/pug /whatever dog climbed into the lap of a wheel-chair bound lady debilitated with arthritis.  She stroked the dog’s head, and gnarled fingers seemed to unclench from the soothing feel of warm dog.  Mary saw this as a valuable resource for her work, and found a small dog in a local shelter that seemed like it wanted to help.  Mary named her dog, a so-called “Whatcha-ma-poodle”, after her husband Arthur.  The two quickly bonded as they went thru the training for certification.  On the day Arthur earned his vest, Mary wept for joy.  Arthur will never win any prizes for obedience, or tricks, but he has a “dog sense” of when people need his contact…He learned it from Mary.  Together, the two bring smiles to faces everyday without hope of building a business or winning awards.  Mary is a “Therapy Dog Handler”.  But she thinks she’s just a crazy lady with a bushy-haired dog. 

   That’s what I mean…If you want to go out and demonstrate how well-trained your dog is, you can do it.  Your dog IS capable…But if your goal is self-aggrandizement, go compete in AKC trials or something.  It’s fun and impressive to watch.

  The question is not, “Could my dog be a Therapy Dog?”  but rather, “Do I have what it takes to be a Therapy Dog Handler?”


  The answer to that question is answered from within yourself…








  1. Tina Grohe says:

    Thank you for a wonderful and thought provoking blog entry. I absolutely agree that one’s ego should never be considered when deciding upon therapy work. I foresee my Ollie entering into therapy work because, like me, he wants to spread joy to those who truly need it.

  2. Denine Phillips says:

    Very insightful, Robert. I related to so much. Two years ago, I asked my GSD’s trainer, “Do you think Cooper could become a therapy dog?” She caught me by surprise, saying, “No, he doesn’t like people.” With no disrespect to this trainer, the answer should have been “Yes. If you commit to consistent socialization and training.” Moreover, you must have a genuine desire to bring a smile to someone’s face, nothing more. There’s no place in therapy work for people with personal agendas.