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THERAPY DOG TRAINING... WHAT I LEARNED post 41 from old blog

Posted on May 29, 2015 at 10:55 AM

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Therapy Dog Training... What I learned

Trisha: Posted on Thursday, May 16, 2013 9:37 AM

Therapy Dog Training was nothing like I thought it would be! I say this as a person who has sent off several pups that eventually passed therapy training, but I had never personally gone through it myself.

In general, when selecting a pup for eventual therapy, I was looking for the EXTREMELY QUIET pups. (I'd also tell you the really quiet ones are harder to train than the more energetic pups... but that is an entirely different blog :) They are almost superdogs in that it is hard to even picture a puppy stage with them because they are so calm and composed. They look like pups and certainly have puppy moments, but more often are calm and quiet. Some people may even be asking if I'm describing a Golden Retriever at all, but I promise I am. Two specific dogs that come to mind when I think of this, are Butter (Sugar's mom) and Roku. These dogs were bomb proof from the time they fell out! Nothing bothered them. Noises, people, animals... it was all taken in stride. And, their was something incredibly special about each of these dogs (others of course, but these 2 I know well) and I could see it almost immediately. I had in my mind what exactly I had to have/produce in order to have a "therapy dog."

My thoughts on this have changed (as they always seem to when I have the chance to listen to new people, learn, test theories) because of my experience the past few months.

I was headed into the Nurses station for my oldest son Zach to get a couple of shots. Well, now that he's a teenager he didn't need mom to go with him so I waited outside. Smack dab in the middle of the wall, I see a small framed advertisement from Kaiser asking for volunteers that were interested in having their dog become registered therapy dogs to work in the new West side Kaiser Hospital. Keep in mind, had I not been there exactly when I was, I would never had seen it. So, I jot down the email address.

I know I want to do this! I have seen how animals can change a persons outlook. I have seen it happen over and over again. The thought of being able to go to a hospital and really being able to make a difference seemed like to good of an opportunity to miss! The class we ended up joining was a total of 4 classes, a field trip to PDX Airport, and then a test. The next part was for me to decide which dog should go with me. I started my mental list for the perfect dog.

One by one I started analyzing all parts of each dog and started to eliminate the ones I didn't think could do it (based on my old thoughts). I started with Pebbles who is needing to settle in after Hunt training... nope, I decided. She still really wants birds. She's too young to be a therapy dog. Sonic I thought long and hard about. He really has a decent amount of training behind him and he can be very quiet. Nope, he is in the middle of hunt training and I want him to get his title before I change directions with him. Maple... I thought long and hard about Maple. She is certainly calm. She does very well (sometimes perfect) with any obedience command that would be asked of her for this test, but... it still didn't seem right. That left me with Sugar.

Keep in mind that I LOVE SUGAR!!! I think she is the super dogs of all super dogs! She is the epitome of a dog that can go train forever and love it, but then come home and be the calm family dog. BUT... and this is big... to say she is extremely exuberant when she greets people would be the understatement of the year. She thinks that all people should be her best friend and that she should get to have that love and attention any time a human is within sniffing distance. Just ask anyone who has met Sugar on a visit to my house :) However, Sugar is also the dog with the most obedience training. With much work I tell myself she can do this. I was also encouraged by the fact that she had recently passed Beginner Novice Obedience. Not the end all be all of things, but knowing the way Sugar greeted people, her being able to sit for exam when the judge approached was a phenomenal accomplishment. So, I figured maybe we had hope.

I sent the email asking to participate the last possible day and left my worries about the therapy dog part to the back of my mind. Uh, how was my dog that gets crazy excited to meet people going to calmly accept attention from people that are sick and maybe not ready for that kind of energy? How in the world would that work? I thought about that often, but instead chose to really focus on the fact that it would be an opportunity to listen to the opinion of a different trainer, see what was really expected, and then maybe see if we could cut it. I've also noticed that going to a class would make me stay focused on training. Kaiser was paying for the training and I was then extra accountable. Sounds silly, but it motivates me.

I head to the all day orientation. I'm sitting in a room of 6 people. Dogs in this group are older and 2 of the 6 are guide dog rejects (super calm/never twitched), and I was there with Sugar at a hair over a year and a half. Hmmmm, not looking good, but as always, denial can be a good thing. In fact the trainer singles me out and tells me that she'll be surprised if my dog can do it because goldens really aren't good therapy dogs until they turn 7. Now, my 2nd best form of motivation is to tell me I can't do something... Darn it, Sugar can be a therapy dog!

What I really take away from orientation is any person and any dog can become a therapy dog team. Ugly/pretty, tall/small... it doesn't matter. Everyone has different needs. Most importantly, it was the first time that anyone had told me that I NEEDED TO BE AN ADVOCATE FOR MY DOG. What?!? I will talk about this later, but my perception of therapy was that the dog was there to be handled/used/touched etc. by the person in need. What I had never given thought to before was that not all people would approach my dog in a gentle loving manner. Some people may be rough, mean, loud, aggressive, etc... even if it was unintentional. It was my job to PROTECT my dog. Huh. This was different, but it is also the one reason I believe that we passed with a complex rating and why we will be a successful therapy team.

My original thoughts about a therapy dog were that it really just needed to be quiet and not care about what was going on around them. My job as a handler would be to just make sure that my dog was being good while other people gave her attention. Boy was I wrong!

Our first class with the dogs was really more about being in the same room with other dogs, noise distractions, wheelchairs/skateboards, etc. and also working on greeting another human with a dog (this is a lot like the CGC greeting, but the dog truly cannot have any interest in the other dog and can neither go in front, or look behind the handler.) I immediately formed the plan of asking my dog sit, stay, and then I'd shake hands/greet the other handler/dog. As long as I said stay first, Sugar was a pro. If I forgot that word, she was up with her tail wagging and wanting to meet the handler and her dog.

The Second class, was a surprise! It was set up much like a Rally course, but with some extra obstacles. This was going to be easy for Sugar. Now the added bonus is that since I NEEDED TO ADVOCATE FOR MY DOG, I was encouraged to talk to her or comfort her as needed. Now, Sugar really didn't need it for this, but occasionally if a another dog was on a different part of the course, I could talk to her and get her full attention again. I absolutely loved it because the #1 reason why I love Rally so much is that I can talk to my dog. It helps out my nerves. For the Therapy test, it meant that I didn't need to have a perfectly trained dog. I just needed to be proactive to her needs.

The next step was our outing to the Portland Airport. I was armed with good treats and ready for Sugar's first MAX ride and trip to baggage claim. I want to say she was perfect, or that I was perfect. I'd say both of us were far from it, but the trip was great! Sugar is very outgoing, but let me tell you that when the baggage mover thing started up she thought aliens were about to get us. This was a great reminder to me that just because something is totally normal for me doesn't mean that it is for my dog. Sugar is very well socialized, but obviously that isn't something I can normally produce for her. So I started back.

We worked on things that were easy for her, but new. The revolving doors were interesting and she was curious, but brave. We practiced sitting at the entrance, waiting, and then entering when I asked her to do so. Sometimes we stayed in the revolving door and found that it stopped. So we waited on someone to start it from the outside. We also worked on regular doors. We went up and down elevators. We headed towards the foreign flights. Turns out that Sugar only speaks dog and some English, but once she realized that people with accents still wanted to pet her, she was okay with it :) Once we had been successful at her giving me sufficient attention along the perimeter and doing specific tasks, THEN we headed back to the luggage belt where she sat and watched, talked with people in wheelchairs, and was sidestepped by noisy teenagers. All in all, a successful day of training.

I should also point out that up until this point, in my attempt to be proactive with how I thought Sugar may greet people, I had for the first time in my life used a Halti. It's like a gentle leader. It goes over the nose and attached to her collar. It was incredibly good at making introductions a cinch (later find out why it was a terrible idea) but Sugar was becoming more intolerant of it being on her nose every time we used it. It was getting so bad that often times we would great someone, she would do a cute bow with a paw over the face and come up without it on her nose. What became more noticeable at the airport was that if we spent long amounts of time waiting somewhere, she wanted to find ways to remove it. The Halti became the most distracting thing during training time.

Also included in the class was a 30 minute one on one session with the trainer. We head in and I'm nervous because thats how I get when something is new and right off the bat Sugar starts trying to get the Halti off. I start explaining that this is the ONLY time she wears it. She then introduces me to my new favorite harness. FREEDOM NO PULL HARNESS. Using it was amazing! This harness is much like the Easy Walk Harness (it attaches in front and tightens if the dog pulls), but it is different because it also has a spot on the back to also attach. The hook on the back also tightens if the dog pulls. The beauty of the leash is that the leash hooks to both spots at one time. Most times, I focus mostly on the part of the leash that attaches to the front. When I know a possibly exciting greeting is about to take place, I focus a little extra on the leash on the back and they work simultaneously. Hard to explain, but I promise it was amazing. What this meant though, is that I had to go back and retrain Sugar on greeting someone. The Halti gave me control with no worries. The freedom no-pull gave her back (she thought) her ability to have crazy greetings. So, now I had a collar that she liked, but I had to go back and remind her good manners. I was excited!!!

Our final group class was focused solely on greeting people and greeting a stranger with a dog. Sugar really doesn't care about the dog so much, but again she wants to really say hi to the humans. So it was set up that our class and another therapy class would overlap so that we could greet new people and dogs. It was very common that we loose leash walk to the center of the room, ask the dog to sit, shake hands, and then walk on. Near the end of the class the trainer suddenly tells about this other greeting. Our dog must sit. It must not move towards people. The person would be walking up to our dog (trying to entice it-sweet talking it/eye contact/get it excited) and when they get about 4 feet from us, they walk a circle around us until they come back to standing 4 feet in front of us. Our dog is not allowed to get up/move/approach the person. At this point, the person will ask to pet the dog. I can then approach with my dog and the visit can begin. Holy cow are you kidding me?!? Get me some cement for my dog! What I didn't realize until we were forced to focus on it was that Sugar had a rock solid STAY when I was away from her. That's what we practiced for Obedience. What I never thought about was practicing a STAY when she was next to me. Most often if I start talking to people while holding my dog, I don't expect anything of them. I let them check out. So this was brand new. Stay next to me, while talking... eeesh.

Now comes time for the test. Up to this point, we of course haven't practiced the test, but we have practiced all the exercises. I am incredibly nervous. I have spent the previous week going every possible place with Sugar. We went to other trainers training classes just to have extra dog/human greetings. We went to Home Depot, Pet Stores, everywhere I could think. Since we had just switched the collar I didn't want to leave anything to chance. I wanted to KNOW that my dog would do exactly what I wanted when I asked. So, I did my best to teach her what I wanted and eliminate the possibility of a mistake.

The day before the test was our real last practice. Kaiser was having a media day for the therapy dogs so we got to go and do a hospital visit. Up to this point, our class had been focused on what the dog does. However, a therapy test is judged just as much on the person as the dog. Can you tell when someone needs/wants a visit? Can you safely interact with them/the dog? Can you control the situation if a group of people rush up to your dog? Can you have a conversation with a stranger while they enjoy the dog?

The hospital visit was amazing! We actually got to visit the Cardiac unit. I met a man that was 99yrs old and looked pretty darn young! We had a few people that asked for dogs, but as we walked around the unit many patients asked for visits. Most immediately went to talking about a dog they have/had at home and that they couldn't wait to get back to them. What I didn't also consider was how excited the staff would be to see us. Seeing tail wags seems to bring a wave of relief among the nurses. It was an incredible experience to share my dog with everyone. I know that had I shown up at the hospital to randomly enter rooms I would have been uncomfortable and awkward. I'm also sure the staff would not have had the same reaction :) Something incredible happens when you add a loving dog to that picture. I may never be able to put my finger on what it is, but the fuzzy tail wagging body just begs to be loved and touched and it makes all the human interaction so much easier. I was so proud of her calm behavior. No paws on wheelchairs and no paws on the bed. She seemed to understand that she needed to be quieter and would gently rest her head on the bed near the patients hand.

So now it is test day. I am feeling like we will pass, but I'm unsure we will get the important complex rating. I am very nervous! The great thing about Sugar is that the more nervous I get, the more calm she seems to be getting. Huh? We head into the test room. We get paperwork squared away and Sugar and I make our way around. I am sure to talk and introduce myself to the volunteers. (it was made very clear that it was just as important to interact with the volunteers as it was to pass each test exercise) I feel like its a million degrees, but I am put at ease as I see the different stations and remind myself that going through this test will be a lot like doing a Rally test. I can talk to my dog. I can touch my dog. It really is more about being in control of the situation and being a team, than how perfect my dog is.

I won't talk about all the exercises, but the test begins and they start it with the greeting that I'm freaked out about. Not only does Sugar not move, but she looks at me instead of the other person with this "I got this Mom" kind of look and I almost kissed her right there :) She did great so I breathed a little easier. Loose leash walking was a cinch. Sugar gave me great eye contact and was awesome. After all, that room was not nearly as distracting as being

at a dog show. Our next test that made me nervous was the come when called. Sugar has a pretty darn nice recall, but for the test, you leave the dog in a sit or down stay. Leave the dog. Then one of the volunteers comes to the dog (who still must stay) and starts petting the dog. That is when I must call Sugar and she must leave the love. What golden retriever wants to leave someone giving them attention??? Well, she thought about it and then came :)

The extra interesting/different part of the test was kind of near the end. Again, I had previously thought that the job of a therapy dog was to put up with all sorts of things. That really isn't true. It is my job to be an ADVOCATE FOR MY DOG. During greetings (which happen throughout the test) I was proactive knowing that Sugar would be happy. Before the person had a chance to get her excited, I'd start a conversation with them and let them know that she really loved to lick :) It would ease us into conversation and I could hold her collar until I could tell how much love they really wanted from my dog. If a group approached, rather than overwhelming her with 10 sets of hands, I asked that some of them wait so that everyone had a turn. That way she is not getting over excited and I have less people to watch. We were careful about placement around wheel chairs to protect paws, etc. The very last question was going to be "can I hug your dog?" I'm thinking to myself that of course Sugar is nice so its fine, but in real life I don't want people approaching my dog and sticking their face next to hers. Just doesn't seem safe no matter how nice to the dog is. So, my answer to her was that Sugar loves to be loved and could she start petting her here? (me demonstrating how on her back) It was a diversion that still let them interact with the dog, but kept everyone out of a potentially bad situation.

I think I have rambled on and on, but I guess what I wanted to point out is that many different types of temperaments really have the ability to become wonderful therapy dogs IF you as the handler can manage their weaknesses and play up their strengths. I completely understand why the therapy team is judged and why it is the same pair. I imagine that if I sent a stranger in with my dog they may have completely different results than I have with her. Know your dog. Train them. Love them. They will give you more back than you can possible imagine :)

Often times I'm hearing that people are having a hard time with greetings/leash training because people are approaching their dog when they shouldn't be. To this I'd now say ADVOCATE FOR YOUR DOG! I had truly not given it much thought before. Don't be passive! It is your dog and only you should decide how and when it should be handled.

You can choose if someone touches them.

You can choose where or how.

You can choose how your dog must behave when receiving attention.


If you have interest in Therapy training please contact me and I will pass along the information. You can do it a couple different ways. You can do a class and then test like I did, or you can just find places that offer the test. I'd love to help you get started!

Categories: Therapy/Service Dog Info, Sugar, Dog Training

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