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  • Writer's pictureKaren Onail

How do I get started?

As we are weeks away from the start of the fall certification class, I am reminded that we often receive calls and emails asking how to train puppies to become therapy dogs. There are several things you can do to begin preparing and evaluating if your puppy is suited, has the right temperament and desire to offer comfort to those in need. Hopefully, the information here will help you on your journey of training and pursuing therapy dog work also referred to as Pet Assisted Therapy. Here are a few of the most important steps to help prepare your puppy to become a therapy dog. Even if your dog is older, many of these concepts are still valid and can be used to prepare for your journey.

Begin Socialization and Develop a working Bond with Your Puppy as Soon as you bring them home

Socialization and the element of trust are, crucial in building the confidence and characteristics that a therapy dog should possess. It is important to expose your puppy to new people as often as possible, keeping the interactions pleasant and unthreatening. The focus should be positive encounters with unfamiliar persons, well-behaved children, teens as well as people wearing uniforms, hats, masks, carrying things and glasses.

As your puppy is being introduced to new people and places, be prepared to expect the unexpected as one negative experience can have a life-long impact on a puppy. It is also important not to overwhelm the puppy with socialization experiences, so stop while you and your puppy are still having a good time. It is much better to have short, frequent and positive experiences. We recommend short visits to pet friendly stores, county/city parks, and school/organized sporting events. Allow your puppy to approach and be approached by a few people of all ages. Remember to keep the outings SHORT.

Another great way to develop the puppy’s trust is to discover the things that you and the puppy-can do together. It is important to allow the puppy to experience different things – go on walks, take hikes in the woods, play in the park, or visit the beach. For experiences that make the puppy apprehensive, take steps build the puppies confidence (we can give you several options to accomplish this) or shorten its duration. Puppies will come to trust that you consistently make decisions in their best interest. This trust is the foundation of a lifetime of teamwork needed for every successful therapy dog team.

Begin Therapy Dog Training to Your Puppy as Soon as Possible

We recommend enrolling your puppy in a American Kennel Club Approved S.T.A.R Puppy or similar basic obedience group class. Obedience training can be done at home or with the aid of a trainer. The benefits of obedience training include fostering a compassionate, respectful working relationship between you and your puppy and provides a positive and highly accurate method of communication. Training enhances and deepens the bond you and your puppy develop with one another, so you become one, a team. We highly recommend all pet owners complete at least a full year of puppy obedience training. Many clubs or training facilities offer a series of puppy obedience classes. For instance, it might look like this S.T.A.R Puppy, Graduate Puppy, Intermediate Puppy, Advanced Puppy. Each series is approximately 6 weeks long and each series will build on the previous class taken.

Determining Your Puppy’s Ability to be a Therapy Dog

Dogs enjoy spending time with people, not just their owner or family, but people in general. Their strong bond with their owner translates into a trust that you will keep them safe, so they can be more tolerant or forgiving of clumsy interactions or surprising distractions. They enjoy providing comfort to others and seek out interactions.

Even head shy or shy puppies can be amazing therapy dogs with the right training and individual instruction by your trainer.

PCTD’s conducts pre-evaluations with you and your dog to observe how you and your dog work together and how the dog responds to being handled prior to enrolling into the program.

Some of the most important characteristics of your puppy’s attitude include:

Social Attraction. How well the puppy connects to people and whether it is confident or dependent on others.

Touch Sensitivity. A puppy’s sensitivity to being handled can help determine the type of training the puppy will need. How well can it be handled in difficult situations such as vet exams?

Sound Sensitivity. Is your puppy sensitive to loud noises? Clap your hands. Does the puppy look at you and approach?

Sight Sensitivity. Make eye contact; does the puppy engage in eye contact? This is a good indicator of the confidence of the puppy.

Stability. Is the puppy easily startled when confronted with a strange object? That’s normal, however you want to pay attention to how long it takes the puppy to “recover” from the startle by redirecting to your voice or on its own, like oh ok, that wasn’t bad, I'll go back to making mischief.

How are Dogs Tested to Become a Therapy Dog with PCTD?

Pawsitive Changes Therapy Dogs (PCTD) has a testing process that involves handling your dog. Our testing is designed to make sure you and your dog have a good relationship with each other and that your dog has the right temperament for therapy puppy work. We incorporate the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test with a mix of our own tests, which we prepare you for during our 10-week program.

Part of our training program, we visit 3-4 facilities including but not limited to libraries, assisted living, schools, hospice centers and in home visits.

During these supervised visits, the observer will instruct you and your dog on the art of visiting, how to enter and exit a room and give you advice and guidance while observing you in action. We also conduct elevator training, as this can be a scary thing for a dog and there is a process that can be used to build that confidence.

If you would like to know more about classes and certification to become a therapy dog or therapy dog testing, contact Pawsitive Changes Therapy Dogs.

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