BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

Therapy With A Fur Baby: A Quick Guide on How to Train A Therapy Dog

Therapy dog
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

In today’s times, we are surrounded by situations that cause varying levels of stress and emotional load. These can be alleviated with lifestyle change, but some people may need further intervention, such as medications and therapy. However, because these options can be very expensive and may have adverse effects, most people lean toward other more natural interventions – such as having a dog. What I am referring to is not just any random dog that you can buy from a kennel; these dogs are trained to become therapy dogs.

Dogs can actually help us with our need for emotional support and companionship. Dogs have a unique compatibility with humans, keeping us happy and emotionally healthy. Dogs can actually go beyond alleviating the loneliness that people feel and can go out of their way to make their owners happy. Because of their keen intelligence and eagerness to please, dogs can undertake a module-based training program, to provide customized therapy for humans.

One dog help many infographic

Individuals who may require additional emotional reinforcement have the choice of selecting dog breeds that are recommended for training to become therapy dogs. If you think that you or someone you know may need one, even if you consider yourself as a generally healthy individual in terms of the emotional and physical aspects, then you will find that this is a highly effective means achieving better emotional, psychological, and overall health.

What is a therapy dog?

Dogs that have been trained to provide comfort, affection, and emotional support for people who may need holistic psychological improvement to regain their well-being are called therapy dogs. Such individuals can be those admitted to nursing homes, hospice care, schools, and even those in their own homes but potentially have some emotional support needs.

The need for therapy differs in terms of degree, and these dogs will always be there to sustain treatment and management because they have been trained to lift the patient’s self-esteem, emotional state, and overall well-being. Any dog can be a therapy dog; the difference lies in the level of training required to formally become one. Because dogs have different temperaments and personalities, some more suitable breeds stand out from among the others.

Exceptional temperament makes a dog breed a good candidate. The importance of temperament cannot be stressed enough. It is important because if a dog cannot control its own behavior, the emotional support that it provides will be ineffective.

Therapy dog with a boy

Generally, larger dogs are more suitable for training. However, due to the constant change in terms of needs and variation of living spaces, experts are also starting to consider smaller breeds for this type of canine responsibility.

Therapy dogs – short history

People who have only just encountered this segment of dog services may be surprised that therapy with the use of dogs has been ongoing for more than half a century already. During the World War II era, constant diagnoses of trauma-related medical conditions such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) have been made among the military forces and even innocent civilians.

The first set of dogs selected to provide this kind of service were typically used in the military. Golden Retrievers, Poodles, and German Shepherds were some of the first set of dog breeds under this type of training.

To provide emotional care, especially for those individuals who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression has been the primary objective. Even with the lack of proper training, which only emerged as a standard several decades after it started, the dogs assigned for therapy work successfully provided the support needed and have yielded encouraging results.

Therapy dogs in group

Over the years, these dogs have been going to hospitals, hospice centers, disaster areas, and even schools and universities to provide emotional support for individuals of varying ages and requirements. These dogs have been going everywhere and providing therapy for students on all academic levels, from kindergarten to post-graduate, and all these visits promote positive results.

Wherever there is stress and emotional support might be required, these dogs can go there and help. The environment of these dogs during the early 1990s to 2000s was limited to special education schools, and they were specifically trained to provide therapy for children with speech impairment, autism, and Down’s syndrome.

The frequency of scheduled dog visits to regular schools has been on a constant increase in recent years due to the confirmed emotional support that they can provide to students who are stressed because academics or who are emotionally damaged due to bullying that is rampant in schools.

A therapy dog and its benefits

These dogs can boost self-confidence for both child and adult patients. It has been proven by numerous research results that having a dog with you promotes the release of oxytocin and dopamine, which are involved in stabilizing mood and well-being. The socialization that a dog can provide is very effective with children who have confidence issues because it allows these children to speak more and engage in interaction. Interacting with a dog subjects an individual to less pressure than when interacting with another person.

Dogs are considered as the most emotionally supportive pets that anyone can have. Humans will never get the same extent of emotional support from a turtle, a goldfish, or even a cat. Dogs can even promote better communication in some cases, because their attention is undivided. The interaction a dog can provide is the next best thing to interacting with an actual human. Because dogs have a warm and positive personality, they can promote the well-being of even those who claim that they are emotionally well.

Selecting the ideal therapy dog and training techniques

There are several things that should be considered before selecting the ideal dog breed. It is important to first identify the needs of the patient. The training process for dog trainees is divided into two segments:

  • Basic dog training
  • Socialization training

Depending on the required level of therapy, training should be a collaborative project among the patient, a veterinarian, and a doctor to make sure that the needs of the patient will be met and that the objectives of therapy will be achieved. Although you would not necessarily need to teach your pet dog some complicated, show-quality commands, training is very important during its first few months while it is still a puppy.

Remember that they can be guide dogs, dogs for emotional support, and dogs for physical support, which is why it is very important to recognize the needs to be addressed before selecting the preferred breed. As the saying goes, you cannot teach old dogs new tricks.

Like young children, learning and development should start at a young age. The skills that are learned will eventually become habits when the dog has grown in age and experience. Curiosity, activity, and obedience can be utilized and established while a dog is still young. Starting early, serves as physical and mental preparation for puppies in the long run.

Select your dog

Therapy dog training has been divided into two major parts for several reasons. Basic dog training starts during the younger years and is considered as the training prerequisite to become a successful therapy dog. This has been the standard because this kind of training calls for a certain level of discipline aside from providing assistance and emotional support. This is where dog breeds are separated, because there are breeds that are excellent choices for basic dog training, but they fail in the therapy dog training, or vice versa.

The formal training only starts when the candidate dog is at least one year old. This has been considered as the youngest acceptable age because of mental and physical maturity. Bones, muscles, and coat are most likely to be almost or already fully developed during this time. This inhibits the tendency for the dog to become injured because of an underdeveloped anatomy.

Intelligent dogs like Border Collies excel in any basic dog training that you can give, but they register as mediocre when they are engaged in this kind of dog training. On the other hand, a Shih Tzu can provide emotional support, but the breed is quite stubborn and unenthusiastic in basic dog training. These instances can provide you with an idea on how important balance is in selecting a breed that can ace both training segments.

The thing that is missing here is the balance in temperament. This is something that needs to be considered to be able to achieve favorable training results.

Trainability vs. personality

The length of time needed to train a dog depends on how much time you, as a dog owner, can devote for training, as well as on how receptive the dog is to training. Several dog breeds are born with the natural gift for trainability, whereas there are breeds that need more time to learn the basics. Herding dogs, retrievers, and some non-sporting and guard dogs are considered as the most trainable ones, whereas a couple of toy dogs and non-sporting breeds tend to require a little bit more persistence as they require a considerable amount of effort to learn the basics.

You will encounter a lot of training manuals that discuss basic commands. The basic dog commands actually comprise the most disregarded training step for puppies because owners normally think that they are too young and therefore lack the attention span required for learning. However, pet parents must remember that the sooner a puppy can learn commands, the sooner they can develop the required level of discipline needed to prepare them for this kind of training.

Some people would rather train their own because therapy dog training can simply be divided into two modules – obedience and social skills. However, it is not that easy to implement. A therapy dog that has been trained by its owner may not perform as well as those that underwent professional therapy dog training. Moreover, if you will be offering your dog as a therapy dog, certifications and a valid license may be required for authentication.

If you have the patience and time, you can actually enroll in community groups that give discounted or even free dog training lessons to help you improve as a person and as a dog owner while engaging in modules and group activities. Even individuals who consider themselves as emotionally healthy can benefit from having a dog by their side because sadness and other shifts in emotion are normal, and these dogs can definitely help.

Professional dog therapy trainers recommend that the ideal minimum age for an ideal dog trainee should be at least a year old. At this age, the dog is already matured enough, both mentally and physically, thereby reducing potential injuries that may be caused by excessive play and growing pains. In addition, year-old dogs are more well-mannered, such that there is an absence of excessive woofing and jumping, which may agitate the patient.

Older dogs also exhibit reduced hyperactivity. This is really important because the goal is to provide support, not agitation or added stress that may aggravate the current symptoms exhibited by the patient. Hyperactivity can also trigger past trauma or reintroduce a new one, which can make the therapy a bit more difficult to manage.

Classic or Pavlovian conditioning

Classic or Pavlovian conditioning is a kind of learning that comes from conditioned and unconditioned stimuli. Pavlovian conditioning enables a dog to learn and associate things in the environment with an anticipated outcome or response at its own pace and through its own discovery. Such training enables dogs to overcome fear of people and situations by facilitating the normal cycle of socialization. Remember that socialization is one of the most important foundations of dog therapy training.

This training approach employs different types of conditioning. Whatever conditioning style is adopted, a common feature is repetition, which is used to facilitate the association between the stimulus and response. Such repetition has been found to be highly effective for use in dog training, which makes Pavlov conditioning a popular training approach for pet owners and professional trainers.

Social learning

Social learning is the learning method characterized by the observation of others’ behavior, whether that of other dogs or humans. Social learning does not need a particular type of learning reinforcement. However, it requires a specific pattern or model to aid in copying and remembrance of the observed behavior.

Copying behavior

As domestic dogs are considered as very sociable creatures, its observation of its surroundings may influence its own learning pace and behavior. However, because of the varying level of absorption and pace in learning, a debate is still ongoing regarding whether social learning is always effective. Moreover, the standard length of time needed to achieve favorable results is still in the process of being determined.

The procedure by which an owner disciplines or rewards a dog when it shows a specific response is called reinforcement. Positive response will lead to a dog being rewarded. This increases the tendency that the dog will show the same appropriate behavior on subsequent instances.

The good mix of basic training and social immersion

There are different kinds of training approaches, but for the basics, it is recommended that pet owners use food-based training. Food-based training is a method of providing treats or rewards after your dog follows a command successfully. Training dogs to obey basic commands should be conducted as gently as possible. Food-based training is considered as the most positive, gentle, and effective method of training that utilizes the dog’s basic need for food as a reward.

In addition, it promotes trust, both for the dog and the owner. However, the owner who provides the training and gives treats should be aware that these rewards should be given sparingly because overfeeding may lead to an upset stomach or may overindulge the dog. Treats can be cut in half to engage your dogs into training without overfeeding them. Make sure that the treats that you are feeding the trainee dogs are age-appropriate because hard treats may hurt the gums and teeth, especially for puppies.

Simple yet enjoyable life with a therapy dog

In North America, there are several canine groups that promote the utilization of therapy dogs that can establish a relationship with patients for the long term. As dogs tend to develop an emotional bond with their patients, especially those who are under professional therapy dog groups, patients who are already healed or who have regained emotional stability and wellness are encouraged to retain the dogs assigned to them.

There are some instances in which the dogs will only stay with the patient for a certain amount of time, but the time consumed can still be considered a worthwhile experience. Such experience promotes healing, even though science is still in the process of deciphering how such heling actually comes about. One thing is certain though, dogs that provide therapy can work better than any other medication or intervention that may pose significant health risks.

Simple life with therapy dogs

Whether the pet parents will enlist their dogs to become therapy dogs for others or for themselves, the needs of the dog should always be met and not neglected. Needs include food, water, and hygiene. There were several issues raised among patients with severe emotional burden who tend to forget the needs of their dogs. Such concerns must be thoroughly explained to the family members by the veterinarian to ensure that the mutual needs will be addressed.

Patients should remember that even though dogs in this kind of category have a considerable amount of patience compared with that of other dog breeds, such patience can also end. When overexerted or agitated, even the most behaved and well-trained dog can display aggression, which can lead to agitation of both the dog and the patient.

Therapy dog groups

There are many dog groups across North America that focus on all kinds of patient segments. These groups can be focused on a specific breed, need, or destination. There are also other dog groups that promote the importance of proper training for dogs.

These groups are in a constant pursuit of improving the system and current modules for this type of dog training to help address the concerns of other training groups and patients while keeping the dogs healthy.

Facebook and other social networking sites also have several informal groups that pet parents can join to engage in a valuable exchange of ideas for therapy dogs. These online groups have professional dog trainers, experts, and even other pet parents as members who can provide tips and techniques on how to keep the dogs healthy and how the current system can be utilized and improved.

In the United States, there are numerous local groups that are available in cities that offer scheduled conventions, symposiums, and other events to promote the importance of therapy dogs for humans, whether for well-being or medical management support, as well as to increase awareness in terms of care, purpose, and holistic well-being.

Therapy dog group

Training a therapy dog is one of the most meaningful experiences that both a dog and its owner or handler can have. Dogs have been assumed this unique kind of responsibility for a long time, and dogs have already helped countless individuals to find themselves again. By helping with physical disabilities, providing emotional support, and boosting self-confidence, these dogs are always there no matter what.

When you commit to training a puppy to become a therapy dog in the future, you also give yourself an opportunity to make a difference. Such dog training can help you improve as a person without you even knowing; you will simply have a rewarding feeling because of the genuine helpful nature of dogs and humans. Such training is a mutual kind of training and growth not just for the dog, but to its trainer as well.

As you train a puppy to become strong, dependable, and sociable, you help yourself appreciate its presence more, and you realize the importance of the training as you see the potential to change lives for the better.

About the author
Wyatt Robinson
Wyatt Robinson

Wyatt Robinson had a great 25-years career as a veterinarian in United Kingdom. He used to be a member of British Veterinary Association and worked in 3 pet hospitals in London and Manchester. He is shining when he sees his pets healthy and full of energy and it is his duty to help other dog owners to keep their best friends full of life.

  • Patricia Parket

    We received good news today that my cousin’s dog has passed his therapy training this week. Are there certain breeds that suitable for this kind of training? My cousin’s dog is a Labrador and she’s going to serve in a nursing home near their place. I just thought of telling everyone how proud we are of this gentle creature.

  • Janis Schley

    Therapy dogs are amazing animals! What they can do for a sick child, can sometimes be more than an actual therapy. A lot of abandoned kids in group homes consider them as a better company and solace, than the professionals working there

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