How Can You Get Started with Therapy Work?
I am often times asked how someone can get started with therapy work. We place puppies in their forever homes and within a couple months, families start asking. Or, I have a conversation while visiting a facility with one of my own therapy dogs and family members are curious how they too can give back by certifying their own dog. Therapy work is one of the most rewarding community service jobs. It becomes a "job" that is more than that. It becomes you and you become it. Your dog gets excited when the vest comes out and you become "giddy" with excitement as you prepare to leave your house.
The difference between a therapy and a service dog. While a therapy dog lends comfort and affection to people, service dogs provide a specific service for a person with special needs, and service dogs receive full public access per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They have two entirely different roles. A therapy dog welcomes interaction with all people it meets while a service dog should never be approached or pet by anyone besides its handler. If you do see a service dog while in public, take note that he is working and by approaching him, you may be distracting him from a life saving moment for his handler.
Where can you get a therapy prospect?
You don't need a specific breed and you can always adopt a candidate from the shelter. You just need a dog with a good personality. If you decide to buy a puppy and hope to do therapy in the future, find a breeder who focuses on therapy or service and who can provide references for past puppies who are active therapy dogs. Visit with the references and pick their brains. That'll give you a lot of information and you can ask more questions as they arise. Talking with other therapy dog teams will help give you great advise.
How can you start?
Start with a dog/pup who enjoys being around people and other dogs and one who wants affection from other people besides you or family members. While your dog won't be doing any real dog to dog interaction during visits, being comfortable around other dogs is a must. Growling or showing any form of aggression towards another dog is not allowed or permitted. Ask yourself if your dog seeks out attention from people and if he wants to interact. If your dog is sometimes timid when introduced to new people, more socialization is needed before becoming a therapy team. If your dog ever shows aggression or fear, therapy work is not and should not ever be in your future. Therapy dogs are happy, naturally calm, and want to be pet by strangers. Take your dog away from your home and watch how he interacts with people. Don't assume that the dog you enjoy at home is the same dog once he is away from home. But, also don't rule out therapy if your dog only prefers one age group. For instance, if he doesn't enjoy children but loves and adores elderly, just know that visiting schools is not in your future. It doesn't necessarily rule out being a therapy team, it just means you will need to be careful about the facilities you visit.
What kind of training do you need?
You do not have to attend any formal obedience training or school but your dog must be able to follow all commands you give and basic obedience commands are necessary for a well behaved dog. I highly recommend obedience training anyways. Check out how to achieve the AKC's Canine Good Citizen title and once that's done, you are well on your way to having a great therapy candidate. You can find lots of information by clicking it above, or search for CGC on YouTube. Some advice: Find a trainer with therapy work in his/her background. He/she should be able to help you get started and continue on a successful path for therapy work that is rewarding and fun for you and your dog.
What organization should you join?
There are lots of different agencies/organizations to help you get started. Start with a simple google search and the area in which you live. I personally love Alliance of Therapy Dogs. The main reason? They protect their teams with liability insurance which protects you and your dog. I haven't found any other organizations in Texas who offer it. I also appreciate that ATD has a certified Tester/Observer, or T/O, who monitors you and your dog on site before certifying you. They don't focus on breed, although wolf/coyotes or mixes of either are not allowed. I also appreciate that you are allowed to treat your dog during therapy dog visits if the facility also allows treats. There are lots of options though in Texas for therapy work. I am happy to help you find one if you need any help.
As mentioned previously, talk to breeders, meet their dogs, ask for references and actually TALK TO THOSE REFERENCES! Pick their brains about therapy work and how to get started, especially if they're in your area and you can have a buddy to shadow and learn from. Don't put therapy work to the side because it seems overwhelming to get started. It's worth every step and honestly, isn't bad at all if you have the right dog with the right personality!