Firstly, what is the difference between a Therapy Dog and an Assistance Dog?

Therapy dogs provide support to people through their calming presence, providing a physical tactile touch, and a focus of attention. 

They provide comfort and affection to a variety of people and usually work with their guardian/family,  providing this service.  You will find therapy dogs working in hospitals, aged care facilities, schools, offices etc. 

An Assistance Dog is a highly trained dog, who provides support to their handler through the performance of tasks that they may require.  Handlers may need help with hearing difficulties, epilepsy, or diabetes alerting, helping to ground with anxiety related issues, or helping with physical tasks.  They support their handlers to increase independence, confidence, and quality of life.  These dogs are trained by specialised trainers, who have the experience and knowledge of not only training the dog but also the various Government departmental rules, regulations, and funding options available to recipients.  
They have a certifying process which includes a Public Access Test which then allows these dogs and handlers to work in public areas. 

Can any dog be a Therapy Dog?

Well … no they cannot.  There are “horses for courses” and every dog has abilities or talents, that is primarily dictated by his genetics.

The primary thing we look for in any working dog, is its temperament and capabilities.  Therapy dogs need to be pretty laid back and easy going.  They also need to have a special connection with people.  Some dogs prefer other dogs for company and some prefer people.  Many successful therapy dogs are very people orientated – they don’t just like people, they love them! 

Your dog’s general health also needs to be taken into account.  Dogs that are challenged with health issues, can be unpredictable as they are coping with pain and discomfort and so would not be suitable for working roles.

Then there is the training.

Training any dog is very important for its health and wellbeing and that of its family.  Many therapy dogs are just well trained, beautifully temperamented family pets.  As Therapy Dog training is not regulated, professional trainers generally have their own guidelines and requirements that have to be met before they will “pass” a dog to work independently with its handler.  Insurance also has to be taken into account and handlers need to have suitable policies to cover themselves.

A Therapy dog has to be pretty bomb proof.  This is why a lot of early socialisation/exposure is necessary to compliment the suitable temperament.  When a dog is out working, no matter where he is, things can happen.  Loud noises occur without warning, people appear unexpectedly,  and every environment and situation can present different challenges from day to day.   This is why  it is essential that dogs have the appropriate training for this role together with early socialising/exposure. 

It is also very important that the handlers also have training so they know how to work with their dogs to bring out the best outcomes, how to handle situations that may happen from time to time, have knowledge about Work Place Health and Safety with regards to the work place,  their dog and his interactions and be able to talk and interact well with the people they are providing the service to. 

As with all dogs, training should start from the moment your puppy is brought home.   Without getting too involved in the mechanics of training, trainers can either build drive and energy in a dog, or tone it down.  The training and mechanics involved in therapy dog work is focused around creating a calm dog.

Of course, all the other criteria we apply to training applies to therapy dog training as well.  Rewarding, development of relationships, creating confidence and impulse control, gradually increasing distractions and distance in behaviours and setting the dog up to succeed by being mindful of his capabilities in every situation.     

So if you think you would like to work in the Therapy Dog area and you are wanting to start with a new puppy, there are a few things to consider:

  • As mentioned above – temperament is extremely important.
  • Do some homework on breeds that are well known for their love of working with people.
  • Find a breeder you trust and ask them questions. They know their dogs temperaments best.
  • Be mindful that just because a puppy comes from suitable parents, it doesn’t always mean that he will be the same. Genetics can play games at times.
  • Ask if the breeder does temperament testing. Although this really is just a guide, it can give you some idea of how the pup will grow up.
  • What sort of enrichment and activities does the breeder do with their pups in the early weeks and what sort of experiences are they exposed to.
  • Meet the parents
  • If the breeder has a “line” of suitable dogs, ask how long they have been breeding towards this. What successes their dogs have had etc. Creating a stable line of temperament can take many generations.

There is nothing quite like watching your beautiful dog helping, comforting and giving love to someone else unconditionally.  These are special beings and I think,  they have invisible wings.