therapy dog training

Training Our Dog to Be a Therapy Dog

PickyKidPix came up with the idea to turn our Golden Retriever into a therapy dog. Her initial reason was sneaky. She wanted to bring him into grocery stores and on airplanes. A therapy dog certification is not enough for this, so she decided that this would be one way that she would do service work. I thought it was a great idea. I told her that I would drive her, but she would have to figure it all out herself.

Training Our Dog to Be A Therapy Dog

She researched and found a place in the Berkshires, two and a half hours from us where we could bring him to be certified. I thought that they would just check to make sure he was a friendly dog but, boy, was I wrong.

Training Our Dog to Be A Therapy Dog

More digging on my daughter’s part unearthed the organization, Pets and People, with a closer location for the certification test. But, after reading the requirements, she despaired about getting our dog to pass. It’s a really hard test for our food driven dog. He has to walk by food and water placed on the ground and not touch it. Even a lick is an INSTANT FAIL.

Training Our Dog to Be A Therapy Dog

Elements of the therapy dog test:

  • Easily leave tempting food and toys
  • Interact with sometimes loud and unpredictable people
  • Handling being around heath care equipment like wheelchairs and crutches
  • Handle sudden loud noises
  • Enjoy interactions with people

She decided that the only way our dog would pass was to sign him up for a Therapy Dog Training Class. I agreed. More internet research resulted in a class forty-five minutes away. Since our dog had not taken the prerequisites for this class, it took some finagling on my part to get him in.

Training Our Dog to Be A Therapy Dog

Here we are at our first dog Therapy Dog Training class. We’re not sure if our dog will flunk out on the first day, so a little pep talk was in order:

Our trainer, Marita Everhart, is wonderful. After the first lesson, our dog could actually leave treats untouched, heel, and close walk. But would this stick? My daughter tried again on day two at home:

It’s amazing to me how fast my dog is learning. It’s as if he really does want to become a therapy dog. I think he’s in it for the treats, but he does truly like interacting with people. My daughter, who is also a coxswain, has natural ability as a dog handler. It’s nice to see my daughter in her element. The other service work she plans to do is volunteering as coxswain at her club; her donation helps raise money to for a program that teaches inner city kids how to row.

After one lesson, my daughter’s goal is to get our dog to pass within a month. The dog trainer thinks it will take us four months, but my daughter is really determined and has been training our dog daily.

There’s also a big charity event in early December, Christmas in the City, which provides holiday magic and memories to Boston-area families living in homeless shelters. People and Pets bring a lot of therapy dogs and their handlers to this event and my daughter would really like to participate. I’ll keep you posted on our progress!

How about you? Have you ever thought of training your dog as a therapy dog?

therapy dog training


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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom

22 Comments

  1. Dee

    I love this so much!!!! We had a Golden Retriever, Oakley, and he was the best. We went through obedience training with him and he was the start of the class, basically because he liked performing in front of people. At home, not so much. But Goldens love to please which I think is another reason your dog is doing so well.

    Our current dog is a hound. She does not care about pleasing at all. It is ALL about food. The husky we had (at the same time as Oakley) was all about escaping. Different dogs, different motivations.

    I’d love to do what your daughter is doing! Some day…

    • Hi Dee,
      I love your dog breed descriptions!! Escaping … oh no! That must be very stressful as the dog mom! Our dog does love food so we are shocked that he’s learned Leave It so well. We are doing another 7 weeks of classes and hope that he will be ready to take the test after that. He’s about half way there.
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…My Blogging Journey at Year 7My Profile

  2. This is wonderful. I think your daughter and your dog will succeed.

    We considered raising guide dog puppies but we travel so much that it didn’t work out. Good luck!

  3. Fun! Like Ms. Dee, we have a hound (specifically a Basset), and we’re lucky if he comes when called. 🙂 I think it’s cool that you guys are training your dog to be a therapy dog.
    Erik – TKRB recently posted…Review! Waybound by Cam Baity & Benny ZelkowiczMy Profile

    • Hi Erik,
      We hope he can pass in time for Christmas in the City which is early December. We are hoping to be part of that as a therapy dog. It’s when all the homeless kids in the Boston area come to a convention center for gifts, hair cuts, doctor visits, and all kinds of fun. It’s our goal.
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…My Blogging Journey at Year 7My Profile

  4. I love her determination, Mia! Therapy dogs are wonderful! I wish I could train my dog, Becca, to be one, and though she’s very sweet, tolerant and friendly, she’s too shy & submissive and a bit too overwhelmed by crowds. The main characteristic is that they should be calm and have a steady temperament.

    Good luck & keep us posted!!

    • Hi Maria,
      Our dog trainer had us take our dog as a puppy to the subway station near our house. He was scared the first time by the loud noise but then he got used to it. The sidewalk to the subway is noisy with semi-trucks too. It worked out now because if you throw a metal bowl near him, he’s doesn’t get startled. Or a walker. He just looks mildly curious. He does, however, have to work on if a person is really excitable, he will get excited too and bark. And also he gets a little anxious if we leave him for 3 minutes and he can’t see us. I didn’t expect that but we need to work on that too. 7 more classes of training and then hopefully, he’s ready for the test.
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…My Blogging Journey at Year 7My Profile

  5. sharon kinsey

    I hate to be the bearer of bad news but you cannot train a dog to be a “therapy dog.” I have had therapy dogs for almost 10 years now and handle local certification in my area. Therapy dogs are all about temperament and personality, and like people, it is something that the dogs have or don’t. You cannot teach a dog to like people or tolerate loud machines or allow people to handle them somewhat roughly. You can teach a dog to sit and stay, but you cannot teach them to sit by a patient with 15 minutes while the patient hugs them, kisses them or whatever. Sorry. People ask me all the time how they can train their dogs for therapy work. Can’t. You can train them to be “good citizens,” but that’s it.

    • Hi Sharon,
      Luckily our dog has the right temperament. He’s very social and loves people. He will let anyone pat him weirdly or too hard, tug at his ears, or lift his paws. Loud noises don’t bother him — my kids play instruments so he’s used to that. He tolerates hugs, squeezes, rolling around, being dragged while holding a toy etc. What he needs to work on is: getting too excited in a new environment and tugging to sniff to check it out, getting too excited when someone is really excited and screaming excitedly and acting crazy (working on that — he’s better), and leaving food untouched. He’s very food motivated. He can do all the parts of the therapy dog test successfully but right now, only with treats. The dog trainer thinks 3 more months and he should be able to pass. He’s so good at the actual dog therapy part of being handled and not reacting to walkers thrown nearby. Thanks for your advice. I think my dog will enjoy this kind of work. He’s the most mellow, patient, good natured, friendly, goofball dog there is.
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Origami Paper Airplane Kit GIVEAWAYMy Profile

      • sharon kinsey

        Thought I would share a recent experience at the nursing home. One of the residents has a condition (maybe CP?) that prevents him from talking – cannot seem to control movements of his arms sometimes and when he gets excited about something he sort of screetches in short bursts. He is a new resident, had never seen him before. When I approached him with the dogs he got super excited – desperately wanted to pet the dogs. Rebekah (great pyr) was leery but okay. Sylvie (maltese poodle) on the other hand was freaked out. He clearly wanted to hold her and normally I would allow that but she wanted nothing to do with him – cowered into my arms as I held her and was shaking like a leaf. This was the first time I had encountered someone that vocal. That was a tense moment for me – really didn’t know what Rebekah would do either. You just never know what you are going to encounter!!! Hope training is going well.

        • Hi Sharon,
          Thanks so much for sharing! I hope our dog passes the test so that we can volunteer. My daughter was hoping to do library programs or programs to help kids like Christmas in the City. We’re getting certified with Pets and People which has the more difficult test to pass because my daughter says the volunteer opportunities are wider.
          Pragmatic Mom recently posted…My Blogging Journey at Year 7My Profile

  6. This is such a wonderful thing for both your dog and your daughter. Just think of how many lives they could potentially touch in a positive! Thank you for sharing their journey. I so hope they pass the test!
    Erin Vincent recently posted…Are We Still Unschooling?My Profile

    • Thanks so much Erin! I’ll keep you posted! They hope to attempt the test before school starts so that they can participate in Christmas in the City which brings the homeless children in the Boston area in for one spectacular day of care giving including doctor visits, rides, gifts, haircuts, and therapy dogs!
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…My Blogging Journey at Year 7My Profile

  7. Hey Mia!!! Found your blog really interesting…i am damn scared of dogs but my little one just love sit and wants one 🙂 We planning to get one for him soon. Please suggest a breed
    Keep loving
    Allthatsmom

    • Hi Richa,
      I would suggest dog sitting as a first step. We did that with friends’ dogs for a week at a time (or less). It gives you a chance to try out different dog breeds too to see what works. We love our Golden Retriever and we would never have picked it in the first place because we though our house was too small for a big dog. The smaller dog that we dog sat, a Keishan, freaked out from flute playing. He had to run outside; it hurt his ears so much. That wouldn’t work because two of kids at that time play flute. The other dog we sat got up really early every morning. The Golden Retriever that we sat was a mellow, amazing dog. We fell in love and got the next best thing to him; his relative!
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…My Blogging Journey at Year 7My Profile

  8. Ian

    love the site… we have a Miniature Daschund and we have been training him to stop pulling on his lead…
    It has been very difficult initially as we have had him from a puppy and he is a hyper active dog….
    Well, after doing a lot of research on how to try and prevent this , i created my website which reviews all sorts of Dog Training, Dog Training Equipment and General Walking Tips!
    All of which have helped us and Ralph (our dog) enjoy walking – especially in this glorious weather we are currently having!
    Ian recently posted…Extendable Dog Gates Playpens CagesMy Profile

    • Thanks so much for the heads up on your site Ian! Sounds very useful as we progress in our dog therapy training. My dog is in another 7b week series of classes after taking a long break. The first class did not go well. Today’s second class was markedly better. I am hopeful that he can pass the test after another month of rigorous training!
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Easy Sun Catcher Craft for KidsMy Profile

  9. Wow, dogs are just amazing creatures! It is so amazing how dogs are able to adapt to us and they are so helpful its just a blessing! Thanks so much for sharing! Good luck in your journey to training your sweet dog to be a therapy dog!

  10. I love this blog. I own a pitbull bulldog. Hopefully you will and your daughter will be trained. Thanks
    Bradley recently posted…Best Dog Treats For Training : Buyer’s GuideMy Profile

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