When a dog owner calls me and says: I have an adorable, sweet, friendly dog. He’s so good with people. I know he’ll make a wonderful therapy dog. When can you evaluate him? I get a bit nervous. More times then not, these are the dogs that come galloping in through the door, six foot lead fully extended. The dog has a big smile on his face, tongue hanging out, saying – I’m here. I’m very, very friendly! Or, they’re the dogs whose owners want passionately to be involved with this type of work, but I see them literally dragging their cowering dog in behind them. In both scenarios, the owners are eager to get started. This presents a problem for me as the evaluator.
Dog #1 – our overly exuberant, jolly fellow – clearly is very happy to be in the new environment. Just what I like to see in a therapy dog. The dog is literally smiling. But, he’s quite a bit out-of-control. The owner tells me that the dog is perfect, He sits, stays, heels, downs – all on command – when we’re by ourselves with no distractions. Well, a therapy dog, for the most part, is not alone and there are plenty of distractions. In this case, since the dog clearly is happy to be in the setting, I recommend that the owner work more – lots more – on getting the basic obedience commands solid, testing the dog’s controllability in a variety of settings with distractions (go into public buildings where dogs are allowed and interact with people of all ages, test the basic commands indoors and outdoors). When he is completely controllable, he may very well be ready to be re-evaluated. Here, it’s up to the owner. He must ask himself, Am I willing to put in the time to train my dog for therapy dog visiting? (Of course, in my opinion, this is a mute point for a responsible dog owner. It’s our job, we owe this to our dogs, whether or not they become therapy dogs.) I have found that those who are committed to doing this with their dog have had a successful outcome.
Dog #2 is more difficult to turn around. If your dog is truly unhappy about being in a strange place, is shy or timid, it will take a lot of positive training and socialization to reverse this situation. The dog may have solid obedience commands – unlike dog #1 – and pass the obedience portion of the evaluation with flying colors, but be very unhappy and stressed out when interacting with strangers. It really isn’t fair to force the issue – this is not the overall package that makes a good therapy dog. A good therapy dog is happy while doing his job. It’s hard for me, but in cases like this, I recommend to folks that they not pursue therapy dog visiting. This recommendation in no way means that their dog is not wonderful – all dogs are wonderful – but not all dogs make good therapy dogs.