Therapy dogs and their handlers visit with people who are going through difficult times, bringing comfort and companionship. The work may take such teams into schools, nursing homes or hospitals. A successful therapy dog must possess a patient and gentle personality and must truly enjoy interacting with people. The dog is only one part of the therapy team, however. The therapy dog handler is responsible for properly training the dog so that the therapy team is a success.
Consider carefully whether you have the personality traits of a therapy dog trainer. Successful trainers love dogs, and thoroughly enjoy working with them. A therapy dog trainer also is passionate about helping people and possesses excellent interpersonal skills that enable him to interact well with clients. You must be able to remain calm in stressful situations and handle the unexpected without anxiety, because a dog will pick up on the handler's stress level.
Contact a local or national therapy dog organization. Inquire about certification requirements for therapy dogs and trainers. Join a therapy dog organization, and request materials that will help you learn how to train and handle a therapy dog.
Teach your dog good basic obedience. Therapy dogs must always come, sit, lie down and stay without delay when their handlers tell them to do so. Use positive reinforcement during training sessions. Praise your dog, and give him dog treats when he does well.
Socialize your dog with all types of people and other dogs. Therapy dogs must remain calm, cool and collected around other animals, as well as people.
Accustom your dog to being in unfamiliar surroundings and situations. Take your dog to a wide variety of places so he gets used to encountering strange sights, unfamiliar sounds and unusual smells. Desensitizing your dog to the unfamiliar will help him stay calm when you take him to a new facility for therapy team volunteer work.
Ask your organization to send someone to evaluate your team as you work with your dog. The evaluator will assess how well your dog responds to you and how well you handle your dog. The evaluator will also observe how well both you and your dog react to encounters with other people and animals. Some evaluators will role-play situations that often come up during therapy dog visits to see how you and your dog handle them.
Become a certified therapy dog team. Some therapy animal organizations require that you make a certain number of supervised visits to a facility before they'll grant you certification.
Volunteer at various facilities, and learn your limitations. Some therapy dog trainers have difficulty interacting with terminally ill children, psychiatric patients, or clients in advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease. You must know your strong and weak points so that you and your dog can work where your team is most useful.
Ask your therapy group about becoming an instructor or an evaluator once you have enough volunteer experience. Different organizations have different requirements. Pet Partners, for example, requires that you be an active volunteer with their group for at least two years. You must have a minimum of 100 hours of therapy visits in at least two different types of facilities before you can volunteer to be an instructor, but you need only a minimum of 50 hours of volunteer experience in at least two different facilities to become an evaluator.
Therapy dogs can be any age, breed, gender or size, as long as they aren't puppies. None of the national therapy dog team organizations will evaluate a dog under 1 year old. Puppies behave unpredictably in stressful situations.
Therapy dog organizations won't certify you and your dog as a team unless you and the dog have been together for at least six months.
Items You Will Need
- Dog treats
- The woman and dog image by Cosmic from Fotolia.com