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Imagine that you or a family member have to have an operation. Thankfully, it's nothing life-threatening or too serious, but it will mean a hospital stay. All goes well with the operation and you are on day three of bed rest at the hospital. You are thankful that all went well and that you will get to return home in just a few more days, but you are feeling sad and a bit lonely. You miss your family and being in the hospital has been an emotional experience. While sitting in your bed you notice movement on the other side of the room, then a large, goofy smile greets you, and a wet nose gently touches your arm. You smile and reach your hand down to pet a soft, golden coat. This dog reminds you of home, of your dog. He sits calmly beside you for thirty minutes while your sadness and anxiety slowly disappear as you pet him. You feel a bit more encouraged. After a while he makes his way over to another patient, a little girl also feeling a bit sad, and he soon brightens her day as well.
Therapy Dogs are wonderful. They brighten the days of patients, encourage kids at schools, and generally offer comfort and reassurance. Sometimes it's easier for someone to interact with a dog than a person. The dog might be able to help a person when another person is not able to. Wanting to train your dog to be a Therapy Dog is wonderful. It can take a lot of time, effort, and consistency, but the reward is well worth the effort for you, the dog, and everyone that he visits.
Not only does therapy work bring comfort and happiness to lots of people, but the training involved in preparing a dog for Therapy Work has the added benefit of teaching your dog to be well behaved, social, and patient in all other circumstances as well.
In order to be a therapy dog, your dog will need to have a safe, confident, and friendly temperament. If your dog naturally has a great temperament then the proper training can take care of the rest, but if your dog is very skittish or at all aggressive, then he will not be a good candidate for therapy work. Fearfulness or aggression can put the people he is supposed to visit and help in danger, and the type of work and environment involved in therapy work can also cause large amounts of stress for a fearful or aggressive dog.
Many of the behaviors that your dog will need to learn for therapy work are more advanced versions of the behaviors taught in preparation for a Canine Good Citizen test. If you wish to pursue class training, to further practice or learn the skills that your pup will need, then a class that is preparing for the CGC, Canine Good Citizenship test can be helpful, or you might be able to find a class specifically tailored to preparing your dog for therapy work.
Remember to be patient and positive while training your dog. Unlike some training, therapy work training does not involve just one skill. The behaviors that are involved in therapy work include multiple things that go into teaching a dog how to be generally well behaved, social, obedient, calm, and confident. For this reason, it is best to implement all three of the methods mentioned below, rather than just one of them.
To get started, you will need lots of small, tasty treats. You can also use your dog's own dry dog food instead of treats if he enjoys his food a lot. If you are using 'The Obedience Method' then you will need a resource to teach you how to teach your dog specific commands. One such resource is Wag! Walking's Training Resources page, which contains many different articles, like this one. Another good option is to enroll in a local obedience class that focuses on training the particular commands that you would like to train. If your dog is more motivated by toys, affection, or something unusual, then you will also need that item to reward your dog with. You will probably also need a collar, a six-foot leash, a long training leash, such as a twenty or thirty-foot leash, for teaching distance commands, and a variety of locations to practice training in. Those locations will need to have a variety or smells, sights, sounds, other dogs, and people. It might also be helpful to recruit your friends who have well-behaved dogs, to help you practice your dog's obedience and calm interactions around other dogs and people, while you control the circumstances of the interactions.
If you are using 'The Socializing Method' then you will need lots of treats and something to carry them with you in, such as a small plastic bag in your pocket or a treat pouch. You will also need at least a hundred different people for your dog to meet, including men, women, children of various ages, disabled people, people of various races, people wearing different types of clothing, including hats, sunglasses, and full body clothing, people using wheelchairs, people using canes, and people who walk and move differently. The more people and the more different types of people that your dog meets, the better prepared he will be for visiting people later on. You will also need lots of other dogs for your dog to be around. Public, dog-friendly locations can be great places to see other dogs. You will also need lots of different environments for your dog to visit and be in, various smells, various sounds, and various sights. In addition to all of that, you will need anything specific that your dog is likely to encounter during therapy work that he might not otherwise encounter during his daily life, and that might frighten him at first. Such things might include sliding glass doors and elevators. For all of these things, you will need to be able to go places with your dog, since bringing all of those experiences into your home will not be an option.
If you are using 'The Handling Method' then you will need lots of treats, patience, gentleness, and volunteers to help you.
The Obedience Method
Find a motivator
To begin, find what motivates your dog. If your pup likes food, then find out if he will work for his own dog food, for carrot pieces, for liver treats, for real meat, or anything else. If you dog likes toys better than food, then find a few different toys that your dog loves, that you can use as rewards. If your dog prefers affection or unusual types of rewards, then come up with creative ways to use those things as rewards during training.
Spend time regularly teaching your dog new commands. Commands that he will need to know include: 'sit', 'down', 'stay', 'heel', 'say hi', 'leave it', 'quiet', 'watch', and 'OK'. Other useful commands to teach are: 'out', 'wait', 'stand', 'back up', 'out', 'touch', 'kiss', 'shake', and anything calm that could bring a smile to someone's face.
Once your dog has learned the meaning of the commands, then he will need to learn how to do them reliably. To help him learn that, practice the commands around mild distractions, such as other family members and friends, neighborhood distractions, and smells in your yard. As Fido improves, increase the difficultly of the distractions, practicing around strange people, other dogs, squirrels, birds, new smells, new sounds, and new sights. Continue to practice around each new distraction until your pup can consistently respond to you and stay focused on you instead of the distraction.
As you practice around different types of distractions, also practice in different types of locations. Fido will need to be able to handle unexpected events, people, other dogs, and environments, so be sure to take him to a number of locations, where he can learn how to focus on you in a variety of circumstances. Some great places to practice include parks, outside of dog parks, outdoor shopping areas, farmer's markets and outdoor flea markets, public dog-friendly events, pet stores, other pet-friendly stores, pet-friendly restaurant and coffee shop patios, friends' homes, hiking trails, neighborhoods, K-9 sporting events, outdoor sports games, and anywhere else that your pup is welcome. Be sure to make the experience positive and instructive during your training outings, so that you are building obedience, focus, and calmness in your pup.
As your pup improves, also work on duration. Teach your pup how to do particular commands for extended periods of time, in a variety of locations, and around distractions. For example, teach Fido how to do a 'down-stay' for thirty minutes while you are at a park or store with people and dogs passing by. This command and 'sit-stay' are especially important for therapy work, because your dog will need to be able to calmly stay with whoever he is visiting for long periods of time.
Ignore other dogs
Similar to practicing around distractions, you will need to teach your pup to ignore other dogs while he is working or training. If your pup does therapy work in places like schools or hospitals then there might be other therapy dogs around. Fido will need to be able to focus on you and whoever he is visiting, rather than on other dogs. This is especially important because if he tries to get to another dog or acts overly excited or aggressive, then he might injure whoever he is visiting with, or distract the other therapy dog from his own work. Bring your pup around a lot of other dogs during training but keep the interactions boring, and teach him the 'say hi' command, so that you can tell him when it is OK for him to meet another dog. Specifically practice 'sit', 'down', and 'heel' around other dogs, so that he will be able to sit or lay down by another dog without acting too excited, and so that he will be able to walk past another dog without pulling on the leash.
As your Retriever improves, work on teaching him to obey your commands from a distance. This can be especially useful if he is visiting with someone doing therapy work and you need to give him a command without interrupting the visit. To do this, practice the command from gradually further and further away. You might need an assistant to hold your dog back or you can tether your dog to something secure with a leash, and then give him the command. If he seems confused when you give the command from further away, then wait five seconds, step one step closer to him, and repeat your command. When he can consistently do the command from the new distance, then add more distance, but only add a few inches to one foot of distance at a time.
The Socialization Method
To begin, gather some of your dog's favorite treats. If your pup really loves food then you can also use his own dog food for this. If you have the option, then start this method as early in your dog's life as possible. The younger your Retriever is when you start the easier the training will be and the better the result will be.
Introduce your dog to at least one hundred different people. Choose a variety of people to introduce your pup to, including elderly people, disabled people, men, women, children, babies, people of various races, people in hats, people wearing glasses, people in wheelchairs, people with canes, excitable people, quiet people, people who move differently, and people who dress in a variety of ways. When you introduce your pup to each person, have the person feed your dog treats. If he is confident around that person, then the person can feed him treats from his open palm. If your dog seems nervous, then have the person toss treats at his paws whenever your dog is acting brave or calm. If he seems nervous around a particular type of person, then look for those types of people and have those people give him extra treats and praise. Do that until he is no longer afraid of those types of people.
If your dog is still a puppy then allow your puppy to play with other puppies as much as possible. Supervise the interactions and have the puppies take a break from playing anytime that their play gets too rough or one of the puppies seems tired or frightened. Prevent puppies from bullying one another while playing, instead watch them to make sure that they are taking turns chasing one another and climbing on top of one another. Also work on boring interactions with other dogs, especially if your dog is already an adult. Practice three second greetings with other dogs, where each dog is calmly told to "Say hi" and allowed to sniff one another, and then the dogs move away from one another after the three seconds are up, before they get too excited. Also practice going on walks with other dogs, so that your dog can calmly enjoy the company of another dog, while focusing on you instead of just the other dog. Practice having him lay down and sit by other dogs calmly. Rewarding your dog whenever he is calm around the other dog or focused on you. The goal is for interactions with other dogs to be so normal and non-eventful that your dog views them as boring and calm, the same way that your dog views most people that he walks by as boring.
Introduce new sights
Take your dog to as many different types of locations as possible, and reward him for calm behavior, focus on you, and exploration of new things that he is unsure about. Great locations to take him to include parks, outdoor shopping areas, friend's homes, pet stores, other pet friendly stores, pet friendly outdoor restaurants and coffee shops, outdoor farmer's markets, pet sporting events, pet friendly public events, outdoor sports games, outdoor flea markets, neighborhoods, hiking trails, fields, pet friendly beaches, outside of dog parks, and anywhere else that your dog is welcome and safe. Especially practice going to locations that resemble places that you will be visiting later for therapy work. For example, if you will be visiting hospitals, then go to places that include lots of people, sliding glass doors, elevators, carts, people in wheelchairs or in beds or with canes, and places with strange objects. You will probably need to go to a variety of places to get your dog used to all of these things, but make sure that you do not exclude places that resemble the future environments that your pup will be in.
Introduce new sounds
Spend time introducing your pup to a variety of sounds. If you take your pup to a variety of locations then that should help him get familiar with different sounds as well, but be sure not to exclude different sounds, especially unusual sounds that he will hear later while doing therapy work. If there are sounds that he does not encounter while going to a variety of places then you can play recordings of those sounds for your dog while playing fun games or feeding him treats, to help him to like the new noise. Start by playing the sound softly while you reward him, and over several weeks gradually increase the volume of the sound while you continue to reward him.
Introduce new smells
Introduce your pup to a variety of smells by taking him to lots of different places. If there is a particular smell that he will have to tolerate later while doing Therapy Work, that he does not encounter during other socialization, then spend time introducing that smell to him by including that smell during play or training sessions or while giving him rewards. One example of a smell your dog might encounter, is the strong smell of antibacterial cleaners in most hospitals. Most dogs will not be bothered by that smell but an especially sensitive dog might need to be prepared for it ahead of time.
Keep it positive
Whenever you introduce your pup to something new, keep the experience positive by speaking to your pup in an upbeat, happy tone of voice, by offering rewards, and by maintaining a confident attitude yourself. Also play fun games or have structured training sessions while in the presence of the new thing. Reward your pup for calm reactions to things, for bravely exploring something that he is uncertain about, and for paying attention to you.
The Handling Method
To begin, grab lots of small treats that your dog loves, or pieces of his dog food if he loves his dog food, then call your dog over to you from a calm location.
Gently touch various parts of your dog's body and give him a treat every time that you touch him. For example, touch his ear and give him a treat, touch his paw and give him a treat, touch his tail and give him a treat, touch his abdomen and give him a treat, touch his nose and give him a treat, touch his thigh and give him a treat. Repeat this with every area of his body, especially his tail, ears, paws, abdomen, and face. Be gentle and make the experience pleasant for him by giving him treats and praising him. Be extra gentle with areas that seem sensitive, and spend extra time practicing touching those areas, to help him overcome his sensitivity to being touched there. Do not do this on your own if your dog has ever shown any form of aggression or is likely to bite you, instead hire a local trainer to work with you to treat the aggression and desensitize your pup to touch.
When your pup is comfortable being touched all over and even enjoys it, then practice rubbing him in different areas while giving him treats. For example, run the palm of your hand down his spine and give him a treat, run your hand down his tail and give him a treat, gently rub his face and give him a treat, run your hand down each of his legs and give him a treat each time, and run your hand down the front of his neck to his abdomen and give him a treat. Practice this with each part of his body until he is relaxed and happy whenever you rub him in those places.
When your pup is comfortable being touched and rubbed, then focus on getting him comfortable with more unusual forms of touch. For example, gently open up your dog's mouth and give him a treat, gently fold back his ear and give him and treat, gently look into his eye and give him a treat, gently squeeze his paw and give him a treat, gently wiggle or tug his tail and give him three treats, one at a time. Practice this until those types of touch no longer bother him as well.
When Fido is comfortable with all of the previous forms of touch, then get him comfortable with pressure, in case someone such as a child tries to hug him during therapy work. To do this, carefully hug your dog's shoulders while feeding him treats. If you have a hard time hugging him and giving him treats at the same time, then recruit an assistant to feed him the treats while you hug his shoulders. Practice this until he is relaxed while being hugged.
After your dog is completely comfortable being touched, rubbed, examined, and hugged by you, then recruit a gentle friend to help you. Have the friend practice all of the previously mentioned steps with your dog while giving him treats each time, just like you did. Have your friend start with touch, then when your pup is comfortable being touched by your friend, have him practice rubbing, then examining next, then hugging last of all. Practice with one person at a time, and watch carefully for any signs that your dog is frightened or tense. Have your friend go slow, and make the interaction fun and relaxing for your dog. Do this with as many people as you can, practicing with only one person at a time.
By Caitlin Crittenden
Published: 03/29/2018, edited: 01/08/2021