A good basic obedience class is a good start but it is not enough. Your dog needs to feel comfortable amidst unfamiliar sights and sounds. A dropping bed pan or the slam of a door should elicit no more than casual curiosity from your dog. If your dog has good potential as a therapy dog it is possible to help your dog get ready by building your dog's confidence and trust in you.
Before you commit your time and ego to a formal evaluation you can enhance your dog's natural skills. Essentially this means building your dog's trust and confidence. You can commit yourself to taking your dog to a wide variety of environments and situations. I ask my dog to walk on a wobbly board, to sit on a grate, to climb bleachers or stadium stairs (because they are so open). The important thing is that the dog learns to trust my judgment. Go to a shopping area and walk around pushing a noisy shopping cart. Stand where people pushing carts will pass you. Your dog's trust in you is, perhaps, the most important factor for a safe enjoyable experience.
One of my favorite places to train is at the farmer's market. It is outdoors and very very busy. Unlike the local park, the dogs we come across are always on leash so it makes for good practice. Also people tend not to ask before petting the dog, and it is often so crowded that passing people brush up against the dog. If your dog would have any problems in this situation, then your dog is not ready for visiting.
There are classes designed to help introduce your dog to the unusual sights, sounds and smells encountered during therapy dog visits. Some books and other publications provide training guidelines. One popular book is Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog To Reach Others
by: Kathy Diamond Davis, another is Therapy Dogs Today - Their Gifts, Our Obligation - Second Edition edited by Kris Butler. If you are a professional counselor or therapist planning on including pets are part of your theraputic program a more appropriate book is Professional Applications Of Animal Assisted Interventions: Dogwood Doga (SECOND Edition)
by Melissa Winkle (Editor). Joining a group helps provide impartial and personal guidance and evaluation.
Have you and your dog obtained a Canine Good Citizen® Certificate (called a CGC)? The CGC is awarded if your dog passes a test demonstrating basic good manners. During the examination the dog must not show fear, aggression or excessive activity. The dog must sit, lie down, come and stay on command, but the positions are not as defined as formal obedience. A dog that passes isn't necessarily ready, but a dog that fails definitely is not ready for therapy work.
Some groups require that you take the CGC test before they will evaluate the dogs. Others simply test the dogs themselves. Taking the test on your own is a good way to evaluate your dog. Tests are given frequently by various humane societies, and often at workshops, matches and other dog events. Check also with your local recreation department, or a local training club.
Once you've passed the CGC you will want to find a group to join. Joining a group will allow you to take advantage of the experience of others, and to participate in group insurance. Some groups even arrange the visits for you, an ideal situation for the very busy, or slightly shy. The group should offer a process of evaluating your dog and certifying your dog when it is ready for visits.
Both the evaluation process and insurance are things you should not skip. Everyone needs an outside observer to avoid "love blindness." Look at it this way. If everyone who signed up for testing was correct, then no dogs would ever fail the test. And most people don't sign up for the test thinking that they will fail.
As for insurance - check to make sure you are covered. Your dog does not have to be at fault for you to get sued. Just defending yourself, and your dog, can be very expensive. Many people get their dogs cerftified through the national organizations only because of the insurance protection. That is a perfectly legitimate reason.
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Copyright © 1996-2004, Diane Blackman Created: August 23, 1996 Updated November 12, 2007