Work of Dogs
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Dog Assisted Therapy: Is Your Dog a Good Fit?


Your Role
And that brings us to another critical issue: your responsibility as your dog’s handler. Although I’ve already noted that a therapy dog must be able to tolerate all manner of rudeness, it’s your job to eliminate as much stress as you possibly can. You may not be able to do this 100 percent of the time (thus my cautions about your dog’s training and personality), but as the human half of the team, you play several roles, and one of them is to be your dog’s advocate. This includes knowing your dog well enough to predict in which environment he would do well.

Willie, for example, would be overstimulated in a room full of children, but might eventually be a great dog for a senior facility. Some dogs adore kids, but would be nervous around wheelchairs and walkers. Thus, your first job is to find out which program is a good fit for your dog. If you’re involved with a group like Delta Pet Partners or TDI, the organization will help you identify an appropriate venue after your dog has been certified.

Once you’re at your work site, your task is to present your dog to others and then back off enough to encourage connections. However, you need to stay alert, on watch for potentially inappropriate interactions. Most importantly, you need to be an expert at reading your dog. If I’ve heard “Oh, he’s fine,” about a stiff-bodied, closed-mouthed, wrinkled-brow dog once, I’ve heard it a gazillion times. Not long ago, a woman sent me a video of her and her dog doing AAT in a hospital setting. The children were in heaven, petting and stroking and chattering like starlings over the dog. The guardian was beaming, and raved to me about how much her dog loved the work. Except that’s not what her dog’s body language suggested. He looked patently miserable, with a stiff body, his mouth closed and his head turned away from the children. His human was so overwhelmed with oxytocin herself that she couldn’t see that her dog was extremely uncomfortable.

Job one, then, for guardians, is to become brilliant at interpreting visual signals of discomfort in their dog, and learning to act on them immediately. That’s not always so easy to do; many of us have seen a suspicious look on our dog’s face and dismissed it. “Oh, but he’s always loved coming here.” But maybe that was then, and this is now. Therapy work can be the highlight of a dog’s week, but it can also be stressful, and it’s common for dogs to enjoy it for a few years and then be ready for retirement.

What’s most important is to learn to read your dog objectively, and to do so every minute of every interaction. If you’re participating in AAT with your dog, you are the responsible member of a working team, and need to watch and evaluate the patient, the surroundings and your dog. If you don’t come home a little tired, you’re probably not doing your job.

Argh! This sounds like a lot. It is if you do it right, that’s true. However, many people say it’s the most rewarding thing they’ve ever done with their dog. I don’t want these cautions to discourage anyone from doing AAT or AAA with their dog. This can be important and wonderful work — good for you, good for your dog and good for people desperate for the same glow we get when we cuddle with our own dogs at night. Spreading the wealth is a beautiful thing — but it needs to be done with knowledge and foresight so that it’s a win/win/win for everyone. Let’s hear it for oxytocin all around!



This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 72: Nov/Dec 2012

Patricia McConnell, PhD, is an animal behaviorist and ethologist and an adjunct associate professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as the author of numerous books on behavior and training.

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Submitted by Frances | November 7 2012 |

Thank you! You have convinced me that I really should proceed with seeking PAT (Pets as Therapy, the UK scheme) accreditation for my Papillon, Sophy, but that I am right to feel that Toy Poodle Poppy would find it just too stressful. Sophy looks at faces, reads them better than I can, then approaches cheerfully and gently if she decides people want to greet her. She loves elderly people in particular - perhaps because so many of the ones she knows always have a pocketful of treats! Poppy likes to watch from the sidelines until she is very sure about a situation... With such a small dog, Nursing Homes are probably the safest environment - but in the UK that is also where there is the greatest demand for visits from pets.

Submitted by Russell Hartstein | November 8 2012 |

I find it amusing and disconcerting when a friend or client comes to me and calls their dog a therapy dog or service dog and then I find out the dog is aggressive to other dogs or people. The abuse of these titles are rampant, unethical and immoral.


Russell Hartstein CPDT dog trainer Miami

Submitted by Susan & Thumper... | January 14 2013 |

After reading "Lending a Helping Paw" I saw/heard so many familiar things I had to write. I have a pup that I started training at 4 mts old for the test, the dog must be one year to test, Thumper tested with two Therapy Dog Organizations (I was not sure which one I wanted to join). I was surprised how many people just showed up to test with no formal training with their dogs, hearing "I know my dog would make a good Therapy Dog", with no formal training I wondered how they could they possible tell their dog is enjoying the work and it is work. I learned to read body language, see if panting, pacing, etc. Or how to approach a wheelchair or ride in an elevator. Not to mention each visit your dog has to be clean, nails short, proof of UTD on all vaccinations and the human has to get TB Tested, Blood work, Flu shot, tetanus shot just to come to the hospital. I am blessed that my dog loves it, once he see's the gear coming out he lines up to proudly wears his Therapy Dog Vest!

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