Human Animal Solutions

Therapy Dog Training

As you look at what trainers have to offer, consider the value you get from going to a trainer who is experienced with therapy dog work (animal-assisted interactions, or AAI).  Would you take driving lessons from someone who does not drive?  Ann has been providing animal-assisted interactions in many different environments since 1987, both as a volunteer and as paid staff.  Ann has education in dog training theory and principles, has worked as a professional dog trainer since 2001, and is a member in good standing with the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.  As a result, Ann has the knowledge, experience, and skill to help you and your dog learn what you need to know to be successful in therapy dog work.

It is important to know that taking a therapy dog training class is not required for animals and handlers to become therapy teams.  That being said, however, it is difficult for most people on their own to set up training sessions that simulate visiting conditions.  As a result, some people choose to go to a therapy dog training class in order to learn and practice skills needed to help them be successful in visiting (and to pass the behavioral test). Further, it could be a conflict of interest for Ann to both train and evaluate you.  As a result, Ann refers you to an independent evaluator for behavioral testing.

View our Calendar page to see when we will next offer a therapy dog training class.

What Makes a Good Therapy Dog?

Testimonial

“A big thank you for coming out and helping us with our continued efforts at learning to work with our dogs and practicing skills necessary to be able to visit. I really appreciate your efforts. It is difficult with all of the busy schedules that people have so I am extra appreciative of your time and efforts.”

As Patricia McConnell says, “Not all people would make a good therapist; not all dogs make a good therapy dog.”  People often ask me whether or not their dog or puppy would make a good therapy dog. In the first place, it is important to emphasize that the dog – or other animal – is only one part of the team. The handler is often more important than the animal in setting the team up for success! That being said, however, here are some general things to look for in an animal who might enjoy this work:

Some of those characteristics are largely a matter of personality (or temperament); others can be affected by training. If the animal is physically and emotionally sound, then often the training can follow – if the handler is willing to do so!

I prefer to focus on the positives.  At the same time, I have discovered through experience that sometimes people need a list of negatives to really understand a subject.  As a result, the following list includes characteristics that are not appropriate for a therapy dog.  If your dog has these attributes, please consider a different job for your dog:

If you’re considering doing therapy-dog work, complete this Self-Evaluation Questionnaire about you and your dog to see where you stand.

Training for Therapy Dog Work

Testimonial

“Thank you again for being such a huge help with my last training class. You are a natural instructor, and miracles like Conner’s amazing transformation would have never happened without your patience and input. I wonder if your students know how lucky they are.”

Man with yellow lab

We offer training for people who wish to train their dogs for therapy dog work (AAI). Animals other than dogs can become remarkable therapy animals, and the training method we use is applicable to all species. However, we limit our instruction to dog handlers and their dogs because our training experience lies mostly with dogs.

We use only positively based training methods in our classes.  We prefer clicker training for therapy dog work for two significant reasons:

  1. It fosters a compassionate, respectful working relationship between you and your dog that is decidedly evident to clients and staff in AAI sessions.
  2. It provides a positive and highly accurate method of communication between you and your dog.

We can meet with you individually or you can attend a group class. We keep class sizes small (5-8 handler-animal teams) in order to provide you with personalized instruction and constructive feedback on your progress.

There are three important aspects of therapy dog work: the handler’s skill, the dog’s manners, and the dog’s personality.

Testimonial

“I just wanted to say to you how much this class is giving to Mason and me already. I really find that it is a relaxing, learning time and a great time for me to ‘get in touch with my buddy’ in my very hectic schedule. It is also bringing me some inner peace as I look forward to being able to give of myself and my team to folks that are less fortunate and healthy than we are. It truly is a gift that we have to give.”

  1. Handler Skill. There are two primary areas where handlers need skill: handling their animal, and dealing with clients while handling their animal.Animal handling for animal-assisted interactions requires very different skills than do other dog sports and activities. Some handler behaviors or cues that are appropriate in other settings are quite inappropriate for AAI. Further, talking and interacting with clients requires one skill set. Talking and interacting with clients while effectively handling a dog requires another skill set. As you can see, the handler must be able to do two things at once!
  2. Dog Manners. The dog must have very good basic obedience skills. In general this means sitting when asked, lying down when asked, walking on a loose leash, leaving something alone when asked, staying in place briefly, taking food nicely, and being very, very neutral when meeting another dog. If your dog doesn’t already have these basic skills down pat, then take a refresher obedience course.  (In general, therapy dog training courses teach you how to apply those skills in a visiting situation; they do not teach you those skills.) Here is where the style of training can have a dramatic effect: Positive, reward-based training methods show up in your dog’s attitude about you and about people being visited. Forcing a dog to visit with people is antithetical to the essence of AAI. The handler plays a key role in helping the dog be successful with these skills. How the handler does this is the difference between a team that inspires confidence and a team that merely gets by.
  3. Dog Personality. The dog must LOVE people – all kinds of people – but still be under control (see manners, above). This means that the dog must be happy (not fearful, stressed, or aroused by) being around people who look and act differently than how you look and act at home.  Visits can include rough handling, peculiar gate or movements, angry yelling, crowded petting, use of healthcare equipment, etc. Personality is not something that can be taught to a dog. Your dog either has the personality for this work or he doesn’t. We can help dogs feel more comfortable in situations that might be a little anxiety provoking, but we never insist that a dog love being around people when he really doesn’t love that.

Testimonial

“Thank you so much for a wonderful therapy dog class! I learned lots and I think Penny & I both are better for it! Thank you, too, for encouraging me to look past my limitations! You’re great!”

Dogs can also change their minds about therapy dog work after being involved for a while. Have you ever discovered that a job wasn’t quite the right match for you after being in it? We must respect our dog’s choice. At the same time, handlers can learn techniques to help their dogs de-stress and cope with the stresses of working to avoid burnout.

Contact us for more information.

Therapy Dog 1 Class

This six-week class focuses on skills dogs and handlers need in order to work well together as a team while visiting people in facilities.  This class prepares teams to pass therapy dog evaluations.  This class does not include an evaluation.  Class fee is $150/team (includes handouts).  Minimum class size is 5 teams; maximum class size is 8 teams.  Small class size helps me provide individualized instruction.  Skills we cover include:

Prerequisites:  Handlers must be willing to use positively based training methods.  Dogs must be at least 1 year old and know how to walk on a loose leash and stay in a quiet stand, sit, or lie down before taking this class.  (In other words, this class is about applying basic obedience/manners skills to a therapy environment; it does not teach basic manners.)  Dogs must work well on a flat collar or harness (no slip, choke, or prong collars).  Aggressive or reactive dogs are not appropriate as therapy dogs.

Therapy Dog 2 Class

This six-week class is designed for animal-handler teams who are currently visiting and who want to perfect their visiting skills.  Handlers must be willing to use positively based training methods.  Class fee is $150/team (includes clicker and handouts).  Minimum class size is 5 teams; maximum class size is 8 teams.  Small class size helps us provide individualized instruction.  Skills we cover include:

Therapy Dog 3 Class

The six-week class is designed for animal-handler teams who are currently visiting and who want to train their dogs novel skills to enhance their visits.  We use clicker training as the training method in this class.  Experience with clicker training is not necessary to be successful in this class.  Class fee is $150/team (includes clicker and handouts).  Minimum class size is 5 teams; maximum class size is 8 teams.  Small class size helps us provide individualized instruction.  Skills we cover include:

General Clicker Training Information

Testimonial

“You are the best! I just do not know what is normal dog behavior. It took me this long to realize the potential for real harm to my toddler. Thank you for all of your help. You didn’t miss anything, and you have been fabulous in brainstorming new solutions. You are an excellent communicator and I love working with you!”

What is clicker training? You might think that there is a standard answer for that, but in a survey of the top clicker trainers in the U.S. during the summer of 2004, expert Kathy Sdao found that each trainer has his/her own slant on what clicker training is. So here is our definition: Clicker training is a highly effective method of training where we communicate clearly with the dog about what “works” (gets rewarded) and what doesn’t work (gets no reward).

In addition, clicker training focuses on motivating your dog rather than forcing your dog. Most of us want a loving and respectful relationship with our animal companions. If you are uncomfortable with training methods that cause pain to your dog, or force your dog into submission, or end up with a fearful rather than a joyful dog, you will be thrilled with the results you get through clicker training. Clicker training enhances your relationship with your dog without losing performance.

As you might imagine, clicker training does not use force. This method is used to train marine mammals (think Shamu) to do the amazing things they do in shows, and it is pretty hard – no impossible – to force a killer whale to do something. As a result, people with disabilities find that they can train their dogs without having to physically position a dog or force him to do something. Children tend to catch on to this method particularly fast (much to the chagrin of their adults). We believe it is possible for everyone (who wants to) to use clicker training effectively.

One of the most frequent questions we receive is, “Does this mean I have to have a clicker with me all the time?” The answer is, “No.” Some people don’t even use a clicker! But during training sessions, it is essential to have a unique way of “marking” specific behaviors in a way that your dog clearly understands. A clicker helps with this. If you are physically unable to use a clicker, your instructor will help you find a way that works for you and your dog. Instructors also teach people how to use a tool they have with them all the time so that when they don’t have their clicker, they can still take advantage of that trainable moment to help their dog learn.

Clicker training is based on scientific principles, not guesswork or trying to figure out what makes a dog do something. (“Is he mad at me?” “Is he trying to get back at me?”) Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes are two pioneers – and gurus – of clicker training in the U.S. Please view their websites for excellent information.