Would Your Best Buddy Make a Good Therapy Dog? Here’s How to Tell.

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Big Barker was delighted to donate one of our beds for auction at the annual gala for Intermountain Therapy Animals, which took place last weekend. Intermountain Therapy Animals is an organization that provides animal-assisted therapy in the areas of physical, occupational, speech, and psychotherapy, as well as special education. We are delighted to have done our part to help raise funds for this very special non-profit organization.

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Kathy Klotz, the Executive Director of ITA, about the qualities that are needed to turn your beloved Bella or Duke into a certified therapy animal. If you’ve ever wanted to partner with your dog to help enrich others’ lives—as well as the bond between the two of you—check out Kathy’s guidelines below. You may just have a miracle worker on your hands!

What is the most important factor in deciding whether my dog would make a good therapy animal?

One of the most telling factors for us when we assess a dog is this: Is this a dog who is genuinely interested in meeting strangers? Does he or she greet new people with joy and enthusiasm—or just when his person requests him to, or with obvious reluctance? Many people are not able to determine this about their own dog!

coco, a reading therapy dog
Coco and his handler, Liz, are a Reading Education Assistance Dog team (R.E.A.D.®), a program developed by Intermountain Therapy Animals

What else makes an animal appropriate to provide therapy to humans?

Therapy animals should have excellent training so that they are reliable and under control even in crowded situations and when there are loud noises. For dogs, a basic obedience class is a must. Potential therapy animals must be calm, well-behaved, and have excellent manners. Potential therapy animals should be people-oriented and enjoy visiting so that they will be happy to volunteer with you. How many of these attributes apply to your best friend?

  • Animal demonstrates behavior that is reliable, controllable, predictable, and inspires confidence in the person he or she is interacting with
  • Animal actively solicits interactions with people and is accepting and forgiving of differences in people’s reactions and behavior
  • Animal demonstrates relaxed body posture, moments of sustained eye contact (dependent upon species and breed), and relaxed facial expressions
  • Animal is more people-oriented than animal-oriented
  • Animal enjoys being petted, touched, and hugged
  • Animal is able to remain calm with people doing such things as speaking loudly, moving clumsily, and clapping
  • When approached from the rear, the animal may show curiosity, but does not startle, growl, jump up, bark, eliminate, or act shy or resentful
  • The animal can walk on various surfaces reasonably comfortably, including carpet, concrete or asphalt, tile, linoleum, rubber matting, and wooden floors
  • Animal is outgoing, friendly, and confident in new settings

What Kinds of Animals Definitely Will NOT Qualify?

  • Any pet that is too energetic and rambunctious, or aggressive to people or other animals, will not pass the necessary tests to become a certified therapy animal. Growling, snapping, lunging, extended barking, raising of hackles, or baring of teeth will disqualify a dog. Sometimes we meet owners who tell us, when their dog starts to growl, that “he’s just talking,” or “that’s just his way to say hello.” Even if that’s true, it doesn’t work to have an animal in school and hospital settings, with people who are sick and perhaps frightened or even tentative about meeting a dog, to have to recoil in fear. Any dog trained in bite work, whether for sport or protection, is not eligible to be tested.
  • If your pet is in poor health, it would not be safe for it or the people he or she meets to be exposed. We visit in situations where clients are medically very fragile, and therapy animals must be picture-perfect in both health and grooming. Animals who are dusty, greasy, or stinky do not appeal to clients.
  • If your animal is unpredictable (sweet one moment, aggressive the next) or doesn’t like being around people (shy, backs away, gets nervous, quivers, etc.) he or she would not be suitable.
  • It is very important for your pet to live like a member of your family. Dogs who spend most of their lives outdoors, especially if they sleep outside and/or are kept chained most of the time, do not make good therapy animals. Dogs who are calm, well behaved, well socialized members of their pack are most successful as therapy dogs.

Interested in finding out more about getting your pooch started on training as a therapy animal? Just visit http://www.therapyanimals.org/ for more information. ITA has many affiliates throughout the United States who are waiting to meet you and your dog to see if you might make a great therapy team!

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