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As the health and social benefits of dogs are becoming more widely recognised, a growing number of people are exploring the possibility of their dog being trained for therapy. Not only do therapy dogs get a great deal of enrichment from engaging with new faces, but it can also be fulfilling for their owners knowing that they are helping to improve the lives of others.
Here at Moment to Paws, we love to see how excited our dogs get when visiting new places and meeting new people. However, therapy isn’t for every dog and there are some clear behavioural indicators that we need to look out for to ensure that our dogs stay happy, healthy and stimulated.
What characteristics should you look for in a therapy dog?
The most important aspect is making sure your dog will be happy to engage in animal assisted therapy. At Moment to Paws, we thoroughly assess each dog prior to joining the team to ensure that they will be happy visiting workplaces with us.
First we assess their nature. In general, we are looking for dogs that are:
- Calm around a vast range of people and other dogs
- Enjoy being touched by people
- Friendly and kind demeanour
- Relaxed when people approach
- Calm when confronted with unusual and loud sounds
- Responsive but not overly demanding
- Unreactive to quick or sudden movements
- Steady to interact
- Happy in the company of people without the owner present
We also assess specific behavioural training:
- Walking on a lead without excessive pulling
- Does not jump up at people
- Does not bark during the assessment (this could be an indication of stress)
- Does not display any signs of stress e.g. turning away, excessive licking (read more about stress in dogs here).
- Does not lick people
- Does not display any signs of mouthing
- Responds quickly to recall
Can I train my dog to be a therapy dog?
With the right training, those dogs who love to be around people and are comfortable with novel items and noises can make great therapy dogs. Wherever possible, training should begin from being a puppy, however there are many cases where rescue dogs have made fantastic therapy dogs too.
If you are thinking of training a puppy for animal assisted therapy, it’s vital that he or she is socialised from a young age, both with humans and other dogs, so that they become balanced and grounded in adulthood. They should also become habituated to unusual noises, novel items and different textures. Puppies have what is called a ‘critical socialisation period’ between the ages of approximately 3 and 12 weeks. During this phase, it’s important to give your puppy lots of positive experiences around different sounds, sights, textures and smells. Watch their body language and never force them into situations that they’re not comfortable with. Take it slow, provide lots of gentle encouragement and always give them a choice as to whether they want to interact with something or not. This is vital when building their confidence.
Regardless of the age of your dog, before thinking about enrolling in therapy, it’s important that they have basic obedience training. This includes sit, lie down, come, walking to heel and stay. It’s also essential that they are taught not to help themselves to food lying around as, depending on the establishment you are looking to visit, there may well be tempting plates within reach. A strong ‘out’, ‘drop’ and / or ‘leave’ cue is also recommended. Therapy dogs don’t need to know any fancy tricks (although we’re sure that would put an extra big smile on people’s faces!), it’s more important that they are calm and obedient.
Can any breed become a therapy dog?
When approaching this question, it’s important to consider the characteristics outlined above. Just because a dog is a certain breed does not mean that he or she will display fixed characteristics, however they may have a tendency towards certain behaviours if not properly trained and managed.
Take the Rottweiler as an example. Because of their imposing stance and history of being protectors and guard dogs, they are often assumed to be aggressive. But the reality couldn’t be further from the truth, with a well bred and raised Rottweiler actually having a very playful and affectionate personality.
However, not only do we need to consider the characteristics, we also need to be mindful of any preconceptions people have of particular dog breeds to ensure that we don’t cause any undue anxiety or stress (the exact opposite of what we aim to achieve through animal assisted therapy!).
So what dog breeds are most commonly used in therapy situations?
Here at Moment to Paws, we just love the wide variety of dog breeds that join us on our mission to make dog therapy accessible to the workplace; Cocker Spaniels, Border Collies, Welsh Springers, Labradors, French Bulldogs, Irish Setters, Yorkshire Terriers, the list goes on and on.
Any breed can become a therapy dog if they are raised and trained effectively however there are certain breeds that tend to be more commonly seen in therapy settings;
- Labrador; the gentle and calm demeanour of a labrador means that they just have to take the top spot. The labrador is a people pleaser, meaning they are relatively easy to train and just love to be in the company of others. The perfect companion!
- Greyhound; a slightly different career to that which they are known for but the Greyhound has all the characteristics to make them wonderful therapy dogs. They are naturally calm, mellow, gentle and peaceful. They seem to intuitively know when people need comfort, known for lying by their side or giving out much needed cuddles.
- Cocker Spaniels; the breed of our first ever Moment to Paws therapist Ruby, so of course we had to include this loveable breed! Show Cockers have a naturally slower pace to the Working Cocker Spaniel, making them well suited to the therapy setting. They are naturally affectionate, eager to please and best of all, have huge characters meaning they can’t help to put a smile on the faces of anyone they come into contact with.
- Beagle; despite their tendency to form super close bonds with their families, Beagles certainly have plenty of love to go around, making them incredibly popular therapy dogs. They can be mischievous but with the right training, their naturally even temper and fun personalities will make them popular with everyone they meet.
- Pomeranian; who can resist this little ball of fluff?! Known for their teddy bear looks and lovable personality, they will take all the love and affection they can get, making them fantastic companions.
If you are based in Yorkshire and are looking to enrich your dog’s days with workplace therapy, we would love to hear from you. Alternatively, you can register your dog with Pets As Therapy or Therapy Dogs Nationwide.