3 Important Skills to Teach Future Therapy Dogs

3 Important Skills to Teach Future Therapy Dogs

By AKC GoodDog! Helpline Trainer Elizabeth Sandling

A therapy dog can bring much comfort and joy when visiting people in places such as retirement homes, nursing homes, hospitals, schools to help children with special needs, and visiting those who have experienced a stressful or crisis situation. A therapy dog's job is to make people feel better and to brighten their day. A therapy dog should be even-tempered, friendly to people, and enjoy being petted.

Sake THD, pictured above, is a therapy dog with Delta Society and also the recipient of the AKC Therapy Dog title. Sake is a member of the AKC Canine Partners program for all dogs, including mixed breeds, and shares life with Amy Wurst of Kansas City, MO.

In addition to the dog learning the basic commands of heel, sit/down, and stay, the following training is very important for a therapy dog.

  • No mouthing
  • No jumping on people
  • Respond to “leave it” command

Mouthing

It is important that a dog does not put his teeth on a person's skin. This is especially true with elderly people since their skin can be easily bruised and broken. Playful mouthing is a common puppy behavior. Puppies like to explore with their mouths and play with littermates using their mouths. A puppy should be taught that it is not appropriate to put their teeth on a person as you do not want this behavior to continue as an adult dog.

Training Tips: A great way to react to puppy nipping is by ceasing all play, so the puppy learns that when he nips the fun is over. When your puppy nips, go completely still for five seconds. Do not move, speak, or give the puppy any attention. When the puppy backs off, you can resume play. If the puppy nips again, stand up and go still for ten seconds. Resume play. If the puppy nips a third time, leave the puppy for 30 seconds. When the puppy has calmed praise and give attention. If your puppy is not calming, place him in a crate with a chew or treat for about five minutes. This way the puppy will not see the crate as a punishment. Repeat these steps as necessary whenever the puppy nips.

Jumping Up

A therapy dog should not jump up on people. This could cause injuries such as a scratch from the dog's nails, bruising, or even cause a person to lose their balance and possibly fall. It is common for puppies and exuberant dogs to jump up on people to greet them. A puppy should learn early that this behavior is inappropriate.

Training Tips: Always greet your dog calmly as to not overly excite him and encourage jumping. Ignore your dog and turn your back on him when he jumps. Make no eye contact with the dog and do not speak until all four feet are on the floor. At that point, calmly praise your dog. Do not pet the dog at this point as this often excites the dog to jump again. Teach your dog to sit or down as an alternate behavior to jumping. Your dog will soon learn that jumping gets him nothing at all, but “four on the floor” gets him attention and praise.

Leave It

It is important for a therapy dog to respond when you tell him to “leave it.” When visiting, a dog could pick up food bits dropped on the floor in residents' rooms or hospital rooms. Some assisted living residents and hospital patients may carry items in wheelchairs, and you don't want your dog to “steal” a cookie or anything else from a wheelchair pocket. It is especially important that a dog not eat pills that may have been dropped on the floor, which could be very harmful to the dog.

Training Tips: Hold a treat in your fist 1 to 2 inches from your dog's nose. Keep a closed fist as the dog sniffs, licks, or paws at your hand. When the dog backs off, praise. Then open your hand and let the dog have the treat. When you can advance to holding a treat in your fist and the dog does not try to get to it, then add the verbal cue. Say “leave it” as you present your fist with the treat. Praise and reward when your dog ignores the treat and then reward with a higher level treat from the other hand.