Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What Makes A Good Therapy Dog

Do certain breeds make better animal assisted therapy dogs than others?

July 6, 8:33 PM
1 comment

Some people think a therapy dog needs to be very effusive and outgoing and always running up to people.

But actually it is the opposite character that makes the best therapy dogs.

Consistency is the key. A dog that is consistently calm and friendly without being overly energetic or rambunctious is the easiest dog to teach and the best partner to have in the field.

Do certain breeds make better therapy dogs? Not really. Of course breeds that are known to have even temperaments and calm demeanors such as Greyhounds can be beautifully suited to this type of work. But other dogs that may have more active reputations such as border collies or boxers can also make wonderful therapy dogs.

So rather than look at the breed as the determining factor for success, it is the individual dog’s temperament, reliability and desire to please that is critical.

Therapy dogs and their handlers must exude confidence, confidence in the dog’s behavior and confidence in the handler’s ability to control their dog.

Just as with people, every dog comes into his or her own at their own pace and has unique qualities that set it apart. A Lab that loves to play ball and run and jump can have all that energy redirected towards working with children who are hyperactive or be part of a physical or occupational therapy protocol.

Play is a very important element of therapy work and an active dog is perfect to learn to play basketball or jump rope or chase around a playground. The key is that the handler must be able to control that behavior and have the dog display its energetic side when asked to and stop when told to.

A small dog that loves to be cuddled on a lap and give soft kisses is perfect for clients that are medically or physically challenged. This dog can still have spurts of activity but is basically calm and mild-mannered and not going to erupt at a moment’s notice and frighten the person they are visiting.

You know right away if a dog does not want to interact with new people or be placed in unfamiliar settings. They express stress through a variety of signals which therapy partners are taught to recognize. It may take several visits to different environments before finding the right fit for both the dog and handler. Patience is critical in the early stages of volunteering.

Identifying each breeds’ strengths and inherent mannerisms can lead you to discovering the best environment to volunteer. We don’t want to train out any dog’s breed behaviors, just harness them to be appropriately displayed.

There are however certain times a specific breed is best suited for an activity or environment, such as settings whereby the clients have suppressed immune systems or respiratory issues and we need to work with a hyper allergic dog.

And often a strong breed such as a German Shepard or pit bull can work best with at-risk youth or teenagers and together they can learn to be the best they can be.

Finding the right environment for your therapy dog is essential. Not all dogs are suited to work in a medical setting or with elderly people. And certainly not all dogs can work with children or very stressful situations.

Breed traits are important information not to be overlooked, but once we understand those traits, look beyond the breed and work to enhance the positive features of the individual dog and redirect others.

Photo Credits:
Callie reading by Nancy George Michaelson
Coco the Love Dog by Sue Grundfest
Stealth the Greyhound by Alice O’Hearn
Lille and Chloe by Barbara Babikian

PET+BLOGSPOT is the official online blog of the Malaysian Animal-Assisted Therapy for the Disabled and Elderly Association (Petpositive).

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