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Your dog is an angel in a fur coat and everyone who meets him can't help but smile. You've read about the benefits to elderly patients in the hospital that are visited by dogs. Apparently, our fur-friends have the ability to lower blood pressure and speed up recovery times, plus it just plain makes people feel good. With your dog being such a sweetheart, you feel it's truly his calling to become a hospital therapy dog.
A dog that visits hospitals is expected to be a paragon amongst dogs. Not only must his behavior be impeccable at all times, but he must be bombproof should something unexpected happen, and accept being fussed by strangers without getting anxious or upset.
This means the dog must be well-socialized from a young age and have a good level of basic obedience training. Indeed, dogs are expected as a minimum requirement to meet the Kennel Club's "good canine citizen" requirements. Thus the dog should be well-mannered, calm in all situations, and obedient to the owner.
In addition, the dog must be in good health, vaccinated, and clean.
Given the requirement for the dog to be rock steady in a range of situations, most hospital therapy dogs are adults in their middle or mature years, who have matured and got over puppyish high spirits. To train the dog to an adequate standard of obedience you will need:
- A good knowledge of reward-based training methods
- Time and patience
- A dog that has been well-socialized since a young age
- A collar and leash
- The dog has passed the good citizen test and assessment by an independent observer.
The Acclimatization Method
Understand the idea
The dog needs to be bombproof in a range of circumstances he may encounter in the hospital. This ranges from being petted by strangers to being exposed to loud noises or shouting. It's helpful to think through the sorts of sights or sounds the dog will encounter and then practice meeting them in a familiar environment, so the dog becomes acclimatized.
Crashes and clattering
A stainless steel kidney dish falling to the floor makes a loud noise, which would alarm most dogs. Practice at home, by having a friend make a variety of noises but some distance away. When the dog stays calm and doesn't react, reward him. Gradually bring the source of the noise closer, rewarding the dog each time he stays calm.
The dog will meet many new people in a hospital and must greet them in a calm and accepting manner. To a certain extent, this training must start as a puppy. During the pup's socialization window (prior to 18 weeks of age) he should be gently exposed to a wide range of people, who reward his calmness with treats. Into adulthood, make sure he regularly meets people and enjoys their company by rewarding him with praise, fuss, or treats.
Accept coughing or other human noises
In a hospital, the dog will encounter a range of human-generated noises from coughs and heavy breathing to shouting. Practice exposing the dog to this at home. Start at 'low volume' with a quiet cough and gradually increase the volume, rewarding the dog's calm behavior.
Accept wheelchairs and strange equipment
The dog should be comfortable around wheelchairs and other mobility equipment. A staged introduction by walking the dog past a wheelchair at a distance and gradually moving closer is a good way to acclimate the dog.
The Do's and Don'ts Method
Do not force an anxious or fearful dog to participate
Be realistic about your dog's personality and character. A highly strung nervous dog or one that is bouncy and boisterous are not suitable as hospital visiting dogs.
Make sure your dog is well socialized
Dogs that were socialized well from early puppyhood are most likely to make good therapy dogs. This is because they are self-confident and able to interact with strangers without fear and anxiety.
Do not forget the health requirements
Dogs that visit hospitals have to meet certain hygiene standards and be up-to-date with preventative care such as vaccinations, deworming, and flea control. Failure to do this will result in exclusion from any therapy dog program.
Get a professional to test the dog
Most institutions require the dog to be assessed by a specialist, prior to enrollment as a hospital dog. Most schemes are dependent on the dog passing this test in order to be enrolled.
Don't force a dog into a situation outside their comfort zone
Never attempt to force a dog into a situation he's not comfortable with. A fearful dog is more likely to bite or snap, which cannot be tolerated in the hospital environment.
The Obedient Dog Method
Understand the idea
Hospitals are responsible for the health and welfare of their patients. Only a well-behaved dog will be allowed on the premises because of the problems an out of control dog would pose. The dog is expected to be well-trained and respond promptly to basic commands so that he's under control at all times.
'Sit' and 'stay'
These two basic commands allow you to control the dog and keep him in one spot. This is useful if the dog is about to move and get under someone's feet. Use a treat to lure the dog into a sitting position, and mark the action by saying "Sit". Extend the time the dog is expected to sit before a food treat is given. Mark this time with the word "Stay".
A strong recall allows you to bring the dog to your side, should he be approaching someone who doesn't like dogs. Practice by saying "Come" when the dog happens to be moving towards you, then reward the dog with a treat. He will learn that responding to "Come" earns a treat.
Walking on a loose leash
Having the dog under control on a leash is important. Practice by walking the dog on a leash, but stop if he starts to pull. Wait until the leash goes slack before moving off again. The dog will learn that pulling gets him nowhere, while steady walking is rewarded by getting where he wants to go.
Teach 'give' or 'leave it'
This is helpful in a hospital environment if the dog goes to pick up something he shouldn't. Practice by having the dog hold a toy he likes, then offer him a treat. As he drops the toy to take the treat, say "Give", and reward him. Practice makes perfect!
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 11/16/2017, edited: 01/08/2021