Therapy Dog Training – A Brief Guide

therapy dog training

If you have a friendly, well-behaved dog that loves to be around people, then you could consider therapy dog training. 

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With proper therapy dog training, your little guy or girl can provide relief to lonely, anxious, grieving, or sick individuals in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospices, disaster-struck areas, etc. Therapy dogs are particularly popular with health professionals and educators who often use their services to improve the health and wellbeing outcomes of their patients and clients.

In this guide, we tell you what a therapy dog is, the traits of a therapy dog, and what constitutes therapy dog training.

What is a Therapy Dog? What is the Goal of Therapy Dog Training?

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A therapy dog provides comfort and therapeutic benefits to people who need them. Often, therapy dogs are confused with service dogs and emotional support dogs. Although some of their roles overlap, the two are not the same.

A service dog is trained to perform certain tasks for its owner. Usually, these people have disabilities or special needs. On the other hand, a therapy dog provides companionship and comfort to people who need it. Emotional support dogs or ESA are also a bit different as they need a special letter from a licensed mental health professional to work as an ESA.

Most therapy dogs are pets and the owners and dogs work as a team. Distressed people talk to the owners and cuddle with the therapy dogs. This provides them with comfort. Therapy dogs make people feel good. Through feeding and grooming the dogs, owners will often form a strong bond with their therapy dog.

Pet therapy or animal therapy can be attributed to Dr Boris Levinson. He began pet therapy in the 1960s when he observed that his pet dog Jingles was especially good with disturbed kids. Soon, Dr Levinson started documenting Jingles’ interactions with different kids and other doctors and people started using pet therapy as well.

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Therapy dogs can be described as miracle workers. They have positive impacts on sick or distressed individuals. They are used in hospitals, schools, and libraries.

Some therapy dogs are also crisis response dogs. They go to places where tragedies have struck – storms, earthquakes, man-made tragedies, etc. For example, a group of therapy dogs was used by the town of Sandy Hook, Connecticut to comfort the survivors of the school shooting tragedy.

Children and adults alike feel comfort by petting therapy dogs. They also feel safer and happier as petting releases endorphins. Sometimes, therapy dogs even help people remember and deal with the traumatic events they have experienced.

Benefits and Goals of Therapy Dogs

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Therapy dogs bring many physical benefits to distressed humans such as:

  • Reduced heart rate
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Increase in feel good chemicals such as oxytocin and endorphins.

Is Your Dog Suited for Therapy Dog Training?

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Not all dogs are suitable for undergoing therapy dog training. In general, a therapy dog should have the following traits:

  • It should enjoy interacting with people under different circumstances. It should seek out attention from people.
  • It should have a calm demeanour. Therapy dogs are naturally friendly and affectionate.
  • They should be nice everywhere and not just in their owners’ living rooms.
  • A therapy dog needs to be trained in basic obedience.
  • It should easily adapt to different situations and be well socialised to strange noises, places, equipment, smells, and people.
  • Therapy dogs should be well-groomed, healthy, and have a healthy appearance.

How to Train a Therapy Dog?

Use the following tips to train your dog to become a therapy assistance dog:

Socialise and Desensitise your Pet from Puppyhood

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Therapy dog training should ideally begin from the dog’s puppyhood.

  • Handle your puppy often.
  • Invite kids, adults, and other dogs to play with your (vaccinated) puppy, ensuring these experiences are positive.
  • Acclimate your little pet to different sounds and experiences.
  • Take it to different malls, beaches, and parks.
  • Approach your puppy while it is eating, dropping tasty treats as you approach to ensure a positive experience and ask people or children to do the same. This can help to prevent food aggression. Never reprimand your puppy or dog if they growl at you when they are eating, instead make the experience a positive one by dropping some of their favourite treats nearby. This will communicate to your dog that you are not a threat and they will eventually see your presence as a positive experience.
  • Teach your puppy to stay alone for at least 3-4 hours. Crate training is a valuable tool to increase the skill of independence in pups going through therapy dog training.
  • Teach your puppy bite inhibition. Puppies that spend their first 8 weeks of life with their mother, siblings and any other dogs at the breeder’s facility, will generally learn bite inhibition. You can also train bite inhibition by redirecting your puppy’s mouth to a chew toy or long lasting chew treat, when they bite you.
  • Focus on preventing behaviours like growling, snapping, and aggression by rewarding good behaviour and ending the interaction when your pup displays bad behaviour. Ascertain if your pup’s needs have been met and that they are getting sufficient sleep. Puppies require around 18-20 hours of sleep per day. Like children, tired puppies can be grumpy and restless. Ensure your puppy has a quiet area they can retreat to or be placed in, if the environment becomes overstimulating. A crate or laundry is ideal and provide a long lasting chew or interactive food puzzle for them to calm down with.

Teach Your Dog the Seven Basic Obedience Commands

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Every therapy dog needs to know the sit, stay, heel, down, off, come, and no commands.

In the United States, you can enrol your dog in the Canine Good Citizen program which teaches therapy dog aspirants 10 basic skills and good manners.

In Australia, you can consult with Therapy Dogs Australia regarding titles required for therapy dogs. 

If needed, you can also enrol your dog in their training programs. These programs will have an evaluation at the end of the course.

Health Professionals & Educators that utilise Therapy Dogs

  • Pyschologists
  • Social Workers
  • Physiotherapists
  • Occupational Therapists
  • Teachers
therapy dog

Therapy dogs come in all shapes and sizes and some of the best are rescues and other cross breed dogs. Some people have allergies and require a hypoallergenic therapy dog and for this the purebred poodle and poodle mixes are extremely popular. Others have anxiety and require a calm therapy dog, making the golden retriever, cavalier king charles spaniel and pug a common choice. For some people, staying fit and active helps with their mental health struggles and a jogging buddy like a bordoodle, labradoodle or groodle is the perfect option.

Regardless of the breed of dog, the biggest factor predicting the success of a therapy dog, is its behavioural genetics. A dog that is reactive to other dogs, people or new environments, will not be successful in therapy dog training. Similarly, a puppy that has been raised in a puppy farm, is more likely to have behavioural problems like fear and aggression and will struggle to succeed in a therapy dog role.

  • Golden Retriever
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Poodle (Hypoallergenic)
  • Labradoodle
  • Groodle (Most are low shedding)
  • Cavoodle (Most are low shedding and small)
  • Bordoodle
  • French Bulldog
  • Pug

Can a landlord refuse an Emotional Support Dog in Australia?

It is illegal for a landlord or strata to refuse you keeping an assistance animal, as defined under the Companion Animals Act 1998 (NSW). 

Therapy Dog Training Cost

ndis therapy dog

Therapy dog training courses in Australia can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. Buying an already trained therapy dog can cost many thousands of dollars and the NDIS in Australia requires that the dog be considered an assistance animal and dogs acquired for companionship purposes are rarely included. The assistance animals assessment guide is worth reading if you’re planning therapy dog training with a view to receiving NDIS funding.

Autism Assistance Dogs

The cost to train an Autism Assistance Dog in Australia is around $50,000 but government funding can be difficult to secure through the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Assistance dogs are particularly helpful for children with Autism because they are calming and can be trained to pick up on the child’s emotions and feelings, providing support when it’s needed. A larger breed of dog, like a Labrador retriever can also act as a safety barrier when out and about in public.

Therapy Dogs for Sale

Some dog breeders specialise in producing puppies to be trained as therapy or assistance dogs. While some breeders use the terms as marketing tools, the genuine and ethical breeders offering therapy dogs for sale will have a proven track record of providing puppies and dogs that gave gone on to successfully be certified in these roles.

Register Your Therapy Dog

autism assistance dog

Once your pet has undergone the necessary training, register it with the Australian Therapy Dog Registry. Membership with these organisations will give you and your pet further access to enrichment training programs, full-time support, and local and national representation. In order to qualify for NDIS funding in Australia, the dog must officially be considered an assistance dog. Generally speaking, pet dogs that have been acquired for companionship purposes are not considered assistance animals.

If you’re wanting to train a dog or puppy as a therapy dog, consult a professional Dog Behaviourist, online dog training course or a dog trainer experienced in therapy dog training to guide you further.

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Hi! I’m Tres! I’m passionate about dog behaviour and training. My dog training methods are effective for all breeds and goals. I have trained dogs for protection, obedience, manners, loose leash walking, crate training and have solved common behaviour problems such as reactivity, barking, separation anxiety and more. Let’s connect, sign up to my free newsletter (above) for helpful tips and upcoming training events.
dog trainer Sydney

Hi! I’m Tres! I’m passionate about dog behaviour and training. My dog training methods are effective for all breeds and goals. I have trained dogs for protection, obedience, manners, loose leash walking, crate training and have solved common behaviour problems such as reactivity, barking, separation anxiety and more. Let’s connect, sign up to my free newsletter (above) for helpful tips and upcoming training events.
dog trainer Sydney

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