Recently Coco and I were invited to a Dog Therapy event in Fort Lauderdale. It was at the Lauderdale Small Boat Club. They support Canine Assisted Therapy (CAT) which serves South Florida. Coco and I are proud to be part of CAT. Many people ask how we got to be part of the organization or more specifically how a German Shepherd like Coco became a Therapy Dog. Therapy organizations can be very different. The one Coco is certified with is very careful who they certify. It wasn’t easy for us, the testing is rigorous and thorough.
Therapy Dog Training – First Hurtle
Like many therapy organizations your dog has to be good at obedience. If your dog is challenged to sit, down and stay, you will have to work on it. I think obedience is far more important than most dog owners realize. In most cases obedience isn’t just for the dog to behave. It is for the dog and handler to bond and interact, and this interaction whether you call it obedience training or not should progress and become more and more challenging for the dog as time goes on. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for it to be more challenging for both. And, while we are on the subject, it should start early. There is no reason why the average puppy isn’t under control or involved with some kind of puppy training. Again, this is to encourage the relationship and communication. Can you imagine what it would be like to still be in elementary school? Same building, same classroom, same teacher and most importantly same material? You’ve never learned anything new or did anything new for the last ten years! You’ve never visited anyplace different or saw anyone new. That is the life of many dogs. How is your dog with new places, people and things? In South Florida we have few stairs. Many dogs never learn to go up or down on stairs. What about elevators? That can be really scary for the dog. What about bridges? Have you walked your dog over a bridge?
This test is usually the AKC Canine Good Citizen test. I am sure you could use any type of basic obedience skills test to have a good therapy dog. Just like any dog who leaves his house should have the ability to sit, stay and down with minimum distractions. The obedience aspect of the AKC CGC test is usually easy for many dogs like Shepherds. But, CAT, and other therapy organizations also have another part of the test that is difficult for German Shepherds and other velcro dogs. The dog has to be left with another person (perhaps a stranger) for 3 minutes while the owner/handler leaves the room. This was a challenge for Coco, she wasn’t crazy about me leaving her a lone. She did pass. How do you think your dog would do? Try it now. The CGC also tests your dog’s comfort and manners with others.
Therapy Dog Training – Second Hurtle
This one is even more challenging. It comes down to this, does your dog like people? If you enter a room of people does your dog run to the people? Does your dog move toward the people? Does your dog move to a position away from the people or try to hide behind you? This part of the therapy dog testing or more properly called screening is often the hardest to pass for some dogs. In this respect dogs can be like people. Some people are more social than others. Some people like other people and some people tolerate other people and some people don’t want to be around other people. Dogs can be the same way. They may love, like or just tolerate people. Dogs can know how to act with people but they don’t particularly enjoy interaction! Just like some people, the dog could think of other things to do. Being around people wouldn’t be their first choice for a way to spend time. German Shepherds as a breed don’t do well with this part of the process. They would rather hangout with their owners/handlers then go meet new people. Coco does well with this part. She thinks Halloween is the best day of the year since people COME TO HER HOUSE.
Therapy Dog Training – Third Hurtle
This screening process might be more specific to only a few therapy organizations. The one we are part of Canine Assisted Therapy is very thorough and particular about who they allow in their organization. This part was Coco’s biggest challenge. They have a room full of people and hospital equipment, wheelchairs, people on crutches, walkers and they all move around and into the dogs. The person in the wheelchair was the worse. This is when I learn dogs in general, and particularly Coco is not comfortable around carts and chairs with wheels. She was too scared. She just wanted to sit under my chair and avoid the craziness. After that ego deflating event I spent a month in the Home Depot Parking lot pushing carts and flatbeds around with Coco. A month later we passed, still not her favorite experience… I think it was in this part of the process the testers see how your dog responds to people trying to touch their feet, brush them and pull on them. How would your dog do?
Therapy Dog Training – Conclusion
It comes down to this; does your dog really like people? Is your dog good with basic obedience? How does your dog deal with new places, sites, sounds, floors, lights?
If you are in the South Florida area and considering therapy work with your dog, contact Canine Assisted Therapy.
We had to pass a separate test to be certified to work with Children. That was much easier for Coco. We had to enter a room full of kids who were sitting on the floor and see if she went to them or not. She did, then each dog had their own group who had to read to the dogs while they laid next to them on the floor. No problem…