Introduction and expectations for therapy work.
By Brandy Girot
East Valley K9 Services
I am really excited for all of you to embark on the journey of becoming therapy teams with your dogs and I wanted to say a few things and give you some information to form realistic expectations about this wonderful program.
It is not uncommon for many owners to feel their dogs would be great at therapy work because of how loving and cuddly their dogs are with them at home with their owners and family. The dog’s home is mostly a reliable environment and a place of comfort. As it should be.
The reality is, however, that not all dogs are able to do therapy work and, not every human is cut out for handling a dog for this purpose. You see, once you take a dog out of their reliable and comfortable environment, a dog can behave very differently. Some dogs become stressed, and any training goes out the window. When a dog is too anxious, they are unable to learn and struggle to be redirected. The reason for this is that dogs are environmental creatures, meaning their environment has a direct impact on their behavior. A dog’s temperament will almost always show its true self once you expose them to a different environment from what they are used to and comfortable with.
Some dogs are confident and able to handle any environment, but some are not and once this starts to play out, a handler can become stressed too. WHY is my wonderful, well-behaved dog behaving this way? The handlers' stress and anxiety go right down the leash to the dog creating a hot mess. It is important that you, as a handler, have realistic expectations of what all goes into training to become a therapy dog team for both the dog AND the handler.
Therapy work is just that. Work. A therapy dog is working hard and the expectations of the animal are high. It is quite mentally taxing for a dog to do visits all while holding still, not jumping, not licking and having lots of impulse control. A therapy dog must have basic obedience skills and be able to settle down and be still when needed. A therapy dog must WANT to be petted and hugged and handled by others they may not know. Many dogs will tolerate handling and do anything for a cookie, but a huge part of being a therapy dog is that the dog wants to be there, enjoys it and most importantly is able to demonstrate that with their body language.
While many issues can be addressed and resolved in training, a dog’s desire to participate cannot be forced and for this reason alone, not every dog will pass the program regardless of how much training is given. The handler is always working too, by watching and reading their dog making sure they aren’t showing signs of stress and advocating for their animal. A handler must learn to anticipate how an always changing environment is going to affect their dog and how to calmly and confidently guide and support their dog. They must know when and how to immediately give their dog a break when needed.
All this work is happening with you and your dogs as a team. Therapy dogs are responsive and attentive to their handlers and reading each other becomes second nature. There is a great amount of trust that must be present between the dog and their human. So, this brings us to training.
What can be accomplished, how long will it take, can I fix my dog's issues? Class provides you lots of information and feedback as you are practicing your skills. And much change can be made with consistent work. Handlers can become more confident leaders, and dogs can change through exposure and desensitization work. Basic obedience is a key component because this is how you and your dog build your working relationship and trust in one another. Becoming a therapy team requires dedication and a commitment of 10 – 20 minutes each day to practice as you learn to work together with your dogs.
For some it will be easy, and some will have to work extra hard to get there. This process is like a marathon instead of a sprint. You may need to go to multiple places, like Home Depot or PetSmart, to build the socialization skills necessary to pass this course as a therapy team with your dog.
Now, in closing, I also want to share with you how rewarding it is to watch how the presence of your animal can impact another human. You will see that certain people will come to count on the visits. Their faces light up, they engage and experience pure joy. You cannot hide your energy from a dog, and they often seek out the ones that need them the most. This program does and will continue to touch many lives. The hard work is worth every second and we are so excited to be part of your journey.
Web site: www.therapydogs.com
307-432-0272 or 877-843-7364