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If you’ve ever thought about what the world’s largest dog would look like, chances are, your imagination would immediately pin that title on a member of the Great Dane breed. Often referred to as the “gentle giants” of the dog world, Great Danes often tower over most other dog breeds, but rarely are they as active or excitable. Preferring to see themselves as oversized lap dogs, Great Danes are often seen lounging about or keeping an eye on what’s for dinner at the family table. They make fantastic pets and tend to be great with people of any age, which makes them great candidates for the esteemed and well-mannered work of a therapy dog!
Not to be confused with service dogs or emotional support animals, therapy dogs perform another service entirely. Therapy dogs are the ones who are called into local hospitals or schools to visit patients and children. These dogs are great at putting their clients at ease and providing some temporary companionship and affection. They’re well trained, well mannered, often incredibly docile, and calm. To be a therapy dog, good behavior and a great temperament are a must, and Great Danes have that in spades.
Therapy dogs generally require a good, long list of qualifications to work with an organization that performs outreach to local establishments. Not every dog is suited to the job. A calm and obedient temperament is necessary, as an excitable dog will likely not make the cut. A therapy dog must be comfortable around strangers of all ages, be able to maintain a 'sit' and 'stay' for long periods of time, must stay focused on his tasks even with distractions, must be okay with affection and contact with people he doesn’t know, and must be well mannered, even without his handler present. These are all important qualities and are not all that a dog must know in order to be a good candidate.
Great Danes are calmer than most, but even they need a good foundation. Basic obedience and extensive socialization in the puppy stages is paramount to begin your therapy dog training. Following that, most handlers typically take the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test and receive a certificate that proves their dog is exceptionally well behaved. Some organizations will even require their own evaluation and test to determine whether or not you and your dog are good fits within their ranks. Expect an extensive training process, which can result in a near lifetime of rewarding work for your Great Dane.
To begin, evaluate your Great Dane’s temperament. Being a therapy dog can mean lots of new sights, smells, and sounds, along with strange people, places, and things. It can be overwhelming for a lot of dogs, so be sure your Great Dane is capable of handling it gracefully and calmly. Any fear, aggression, or over-excitement is usually a sign that your dog may not be suited for therapy work. Remember that therapy dogs often work with people who are sick or injured. It is not acceptable to ask a dog who is ill-suited for therapy work to be around these types of people if he is not properly trained for it.
Make sure your dog’s vaccinations are all up to date and that he is well groomed any time he is out in public. This will set a good foundation for later routines when it comes to therapy work.
The Socialization Method
Socialization is very important in the early stages of puppyhood and should begin once your dog has received all of his vaccinations and about one to two weeks have passed.
Your puppy should be familiar with different places such as parks, pet stores, different types of homes, dog-accessible public places, and places with lots of noise and people. Be sure that your dog is allowed to be wherever you decide to take him. Therapy dogs do not have public access rights.
Meet new people
Your Great Dane should be friendly to strangers, both adults and children. Bring him around and have people offer him treats and toys. Associate strangers with good things and teach him to expect lots of affection around people he doesn’t know.
Meet other dogs
Therapy dogs can sometimes work with other dogs in the same organization. Your Great Dane will need to be familiar with and comfortable with other dogs. Take him to play dates early on and encourage good play behavior. Be careful when going to dog parks, as not every dog there is well behaved or well trained and some can be downright aggressive. Use your best judgement when dog parks are involved.
Practice new situations
Every day for a therapy dog may be different and the training up until that point should be just as varied. Do not hesitate to bring your dog into new experiences and places, encouraging calm and positive exploration and behavior.
The Obedience Method
Work on the basics
At the very least, your Great Dane will need to know ‘sit’ and ‘stay’. Consider also introducing her to ‘heel’, ‘come’, and ‘down’. These basic obedience commands will create a foundation to build on later.
Work with distractions
Therapy dogs work in a variety of environments which can range from calm and quiet to noisy and busy. Your dog must be able to perform obedience commands in any kind of environment. Practice with distractions and encourage focus even when the environment is busy.
Work with other people
Your Great Dane should know how to follow obedience commands from strangers as well as yourself. People within a visitation area may require your dog to perform a command for one reason or another. She should be receptive to receiving commands from other people.
Expand your dog’s knowledge
Consider teaching more specific obedience commands that can help a patient or child during their visit. Learning how to pick things up from the ground or fetch certain items can come in handy. These tasks are typically more associated with service dogs, but can be learned by any dog, if only to increase the number of commands your dog knows.
Consider hand signals
Some dogs can practice more complex obedience by utilizing a handler’s hand signals rather than verbal commands. This can make it easy to communicate with people who may not be as talkative or verbal.
The Certification Method
Start with a basics class
Most training centers will reward your dog with a certificate of completion of their training course. Prove that your Great Dane can handle the basics and earn this certificate before anything else.
Begin training for the CGC
The American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen program is one of the more well known training courses for dogs to show off great behavior and temperament. The program provides classes, evaluators, and tests for your Great Dane to show that he is capable of being a well mannered dog in all types of situations. Earning the CGC is another step toward becoming a certified therapy dog.
Get certified to begin visitation
The AKC offers certification for their therapy dog program. To do this, your Great Dane must be certified with the AKC under one of their three registration categories.
Join an organization
Some outside organizations will accept therapy dogs with the CGC certification and sometimes require their own evaluation to be passed. Joining an organization as a volunteer handler can afford you many more opportunities for you and your Great Dane to visit a variety of establishments and locations.
Begin visits and keep track
The AKC awards titles to dogs with certain numbers of visits under their belt. The titles go from 10, to 50, to 100, and upwards, earning a new title as the dog continues to work. Earning these titles will afford your Great Dane with more opportunities and prestige as a therapy dog.
By TJ Trevino
Published: 01/24/2018, edited: 01/08/2021