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How to Train a Therapy Dog

Dog owners know very well how therapeutic their canine companion can be. Most dogs are innately born to love and soothe their owners, and can actually improve the life and health of their owners by doing so. Now, more and more dog owners are seeking to spread the joy of dog ownership by training their dogs to be therapy dogs so that their love and comfort can benefit others.

What is a Therapy Dog?

Some people confuse therapy dogs with service dogs, but these two terms are not actually interchangeable. Service dogs are trained from puppyhood to assist disabled individuals with the basic functions of living, and are actually adopted by and owned by such individuals. Therapy dogs, however, simply visit individuals in order to provide some soothing love and comfort for a time before returning home with their owner.

Therapy dogs are becoming more and more widely used in a variety of capacities, from visiting individuals in hospitals, assisted-living facilities and hospice centers to assisting in schools and other areas. According to the American Kennel Club, there are roughly fifty thousand registered dog-owner therapy teams throughout the United States. This number has grown steadily as more and more individuals have come to recognize the wonderful health benefits of canine-human interaction. One study found that even a twelve-minute visit with a dog could work to lower the blood pressure and anxiety of a patient suffering from heart failure.

In addition to providing humans with the love and comfort they need, dogs themselves reap great benefits as a result of interacting with humans. Study findings that were published in the Veterinary Journal show that canine-human interaction helps to increase the oxytocin and dopamine levels in dogs, which are neurological signs of happiness. Therapy dog owners can find the experience to be highly rewarding as well, as Janet Cundari has found. Cundari visits the Westchester Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Unit in Valhalla, NY, with her shetland sheepdog, Karly. Cundari knows that they are absolutely making a difference in people’s lives. Upon their arrival, Cundari and Karly find the patients looking sad and withdrawn, but as soon as they begin interacting with Karly, the patients become animated and interested. Cundari realizes that the relief may only be brief, but it’s enough to give patients some hope and happiness in an otherwise dreary situation.

Training a Therapy Dog

If you are a dog owner and you are interested in training your dog to become a therapy dog, here are some tips:

  • Consider your dog’s general temperament. A dog’s breed and size are not as important as their general temperament. A dog who is uncomfortable with receiving love and attention from others, especially strangers, will not make a good therapy dog regardless of their breed or size. If your dog is generally calm, friendly and loving, even toward strangers, he may make a good therapy dog.
  • Wait until your dog is at least one year of age. While small puppies can certainly be very cute, they are not as capable of being still enough for long enough to interact with individuals for their benefit. Once your dog has reached one year of age, they will be better able to interact with others on a calm, soothing level.
  • Work with your dog until they respond well to your commands and are open to meeting individuals in all sorts of situations. In order to register your dog as a therapy dog with a national group, you both will have to pass an in-person examination that tests your dog’s responses to your commands, as well as their comfort in approaching individuals in all sorts of situations, such as in a wheelchair. Sometimes the evaluation criteria is publically posted by these groups online, and you can use these criteria to better train or assess your dog.
  • If you feel that your dog needs more help in order to pass the therapy dog test, there are local groups that have therapy-dog training programs. These programs often last anywhere between five to sixteen weeks in length, and cost anywhere between one hundred and three hundred dollars.

Your dog’s love can provide you with great joy and comfort, and it can be highly satisfactory to share this with others who desperately need it. Training your dog to be a therapy dog can take a lot of work and commitment, but it can also be highly rewarding for both you and your dog.

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