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.
Having a hard time getting Mannix to focus just on me when there are distractions.
Hello Dana, I suggest enrolling in a well recommended Intermediate or Advanced obedience class (depending on how his obedience is now). Focus around distractions comes with a lot of practice and is harder for some dogs than others, especially while young. When I work with clients' dogs we work on a command like come on a long leash. First we work somewhere like a fenced in yard until pup can do it reliably there. As pup improves, move somewhere like a cul-de-sac, then other parts of the neighborhood, calm parks, busier parks, outside of dog parks (not in the fence with the dogs - just where pup can see them), pet stores, outdoor shopping areas, farmers markets, ect... We practice the training at a certain difficulty level until pup can obey in that location around those distractions, then we move onto the next difficulty level as they show they are ready, then the next and the next - until finally pup is reliable in all situations. This takes a lot of repetition and trips out to places. It's also important to motivate pup well and that doesn't always mean food. When you give pup a command, pay attention to your tone and body language. Are you enthusiastic when calling Come? Are you calm when saying Heel? Are you focused on them to get your timing right? Do you sound confident and sure? What are you rewarding? Are you giving a treat when pup does especially well, are you only allowing forward movement when pup is heeling, are you letting pup go sniff something if they come and focus FIRST, are you waiting until they sit before you let them outside - so they are focused and calm to begin with. Does pup know that you mean what you say? When you give a command do you enforce it? This might mean not letting pup walk away until they Sit if you command them to - even if you have to wait fifteen minutes. Practicing Come on a long leash or using a vibration or stimulation e-collar so you can enforce the command if they disobey it once you know that they understand, not letting pup eat or go outside until they are calmly waiting or sitting, ect... Some dogs are a lot more distracted than others. The truth is you do have to practice more with some dogs to get the same results - dogs are different than each other and that's okay. A dog that learns something more slowly may also obey more willingly once it is learned - with less testing of boundaries. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden
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