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Therapy Dog Training: Becoming a Therapeutic Team

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Molly plays to her strength

I teach therapy dog training classes, but that's a bit of a misnomer. The classes are not dog training classes in the traditional sense. They are really all about relationship-building, developing partnerships that will enhance the well-being of others.

Consider the following:

Molly trots down the hallway between me and a student. Intermittently, she glances up at me and toward the student who holds her leash. Molly and I are in the process of teaching a high school student with autism how to use a visual schedule (pictures listing a series of activities). Nearing the end of the hallway, we enter the classroom.

Molly prompts Trevor to continue brushing her.

Trevor kneels facing Molly, with a dog brush in his hand; Molly sits before him. Trevor brushes Molly for a few moments and then stops, withdrawing into his autism. Molly looks at him. She waits a moment and then gently taps his right leg with her left paw. (Trevor…its brushing time.) When there is no response, she taps his leg again, and then taps his chest. (Trev…its brushing time, remember?) No response. Molly places her paw on Trevor's chest, leaves it there and stares at him. (Trevor…?) Trevor and Molly look into each other's eyes, and those of us watching sense that something special is going on. (Trevor? Hi.) Molly scoops her head toward Trevor (Brushing...). She stares into his eyes. (Trevor?) Trevor resumes brushing Molly.

From the moment Trevor took the brush in his hand, what happened was solely between Trevor and Molly. I became the observer and Molly took the lead. Connecting with students who are withdrawn into autism is her area of expertise. Communicating with Trevor at that time was my partner's job.

I show a video of this interaction between Trevor and Molly at the beginning of all my therapy dog training classes because it is such a good example of a therapy dog team partnering in service. Our roles are fluid; leadership shifts according to situation and aptitude. Dogs are natural trial-and-error problem solvers, especially when it comes to connecting with pack members and finding food. We humans, with abstract thinking and forethought, provide the structure. Training for therapy dog teams builds on these strengths.

Santa Paws

Delilah sweetens the holiday

It's Christmas Day in the intensive care unit of a hospital. An older woman lies awake in bed; several family members are with her in the small room. It is very still and quiet. A knock comes from the open door and "Santa Paws" appears. After asking for and getting consent to enter the room, Delilah, my black standard poodle, heads straight for the patient. She makes and sustains gentle eye contact, and pants softly. The patient begins to giggle.

"She's smiling at me!" She giggles and giggles. It's contagious—soon everyone in the room, including me, is giggling. In a matter of a very few minutes the room was filled with the spirit of Christmas, all through the eyes and expression of a loving therapy dog.

Prepare to jump in

No matter where therapy dog teams ultimately choose to deliver services—hospital, school, library, nursing home, disaster site—doing therapy dog work means fostering a sense of connection between the dog and someone else.

Teaching a dog to be really present in those situations starts with teaching how to partner; each partner needs to experience teaching and learning as a team. Just as important, though, is the temperament of the dog. If you are thinking of doing therapy dog work, ask yourself if you and your dog enjoy meeting new people. Is your dog capable of remaining calm and staying focused in novel and distracting situations? How comfortable is your dog around other dogs? Does your dog enjoy being petted by unfamiliar people and does your tog tolerate handling all over? If you answered "yes" to these questions, then you are ready to learn about training for therapy dog work and to become a member of a therapy dog organization.

The first step is to go online and read about therapy dog organizations. Start by reviewing those recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC). The AKC created a therapy dog title program in 2011 (although you don't need a title to do therapy dog work) and recognizes five therapy dog organizations: Therapy Dogs Incorporated (TDInc.), Bright and Beautiful, Love on a Leash, Pet Partners, and Therapy Dogs International (TDI). Each organization specifies its own criteria for membership, which includes liability insurance.

Capture a specific skill set

Teaching a dog and handler to function as a team is the heart of preparation for therapy dog work. Reciprocal teaching and learning skills are necessary to enter the field and deliver highly effective services. These skills include keen observation and attending skills, the ability to communicate clearly (with one another and with others), responsiveness to each other as partners, and demonstrated polite behavior. These skills develop as dog/handler teams learn how to interact and communicate.

In my classes, I use an instructional approach based on the science of applied behavior analysis, known in the dog training world as clicker training. Clicker training in general, and shaping in particular, set up a trusting, reciprocal relationship between dog and trainer that is the foundational for successful therapy dog work. As a handler learns to train a dog to behave in certain ways, s/he learns to teach. As a dog experiences the rewards and freedoms of clicker training, the dog learns to learn. In the process, the two become a team.

Molly gives Trevor her full attention.

It all starts with eye contact. I learned the power of asking for eye contact a long time ago. I am a retired school psychologist, and at one point in my career I did discrete trial teaching with preschoolers on the autism spectrum. The first thing I taught the kids was: "Quiet hands. Look at me."

Translated, "Quiet hands" meant, Put your hands on your knees and make eye contact. Over time, that message not only worked to get a student's attention (so I could give instructions for academic skills like matching, sorting, and naming colors), but also seemed to switch on a learning state of mind. Even a highly distracted child could be called back to a task with "Quiet hands. Look at me." Like young children with autism, therapy dogs teams must learn to stay focused on their work and keep in touch with their partners, even under extremely distracting conditions. Learning how to offer (dog) and ask for (human) eye contact is one of the first things a team needs to learn. That learning process starts with capturing.

Capturing is a training term that means catching a behavior that a dog does naturally, like glancing at its owner, and putting that behavior on cue. It's like taking a brief video clip of your dog doing something and then naming it so you can find it and see it again later. You capture eye contact by watching your dog. Wait for the behavior, a glance, and then click and offer a treat. Repeat this pattern for a few minutes.

In the first session of the class I offer, we don't necessarily name the behavior. To start, it's more important for the dogs to learn to check in with the handlers, and to figure out what they are doing to make their humans click and give them a treat. When you are confident that the dog knows what is earning the treat, that's when you add a cue (name the behavior). Then, practice the behavior and cue in different locations with increasing levels of distraction. Checking in frequently helps dogs stay calm and confident.

In my classes, we also teach dogs to greet the people they are visiting with eye contact. It means a lot to most people, especially to patients, for a therapy dog to look at them gently when the dog enters the room. In class, we switch seats and capture eye contact from classmates' dogs. Later, the behavior becomes generalized by setting up situations for the dogs to practice at home and out in the community. Delilah, my black standard poodle, has become very good at this behavior because she is reinforced so frequently by all the gentle petting she gets at the hospital we visit.

Handlers who work to improve their dogs' attending skills become better observers.

Handlers who work to improve their dogs' attending skills become better observers. This is crucial, because the first priority when visiting as therapy dog teams is to keep the dogs safe and enjoying their jobs. Being mindful of what is going on all around during visits and reading and respecting body language, especially signs of stress or avoidance, keep dogs happy to be there. And, the facilities remain happy to host therapy teams! Visits between a therapy dog and person are by mutual consent. They are never forced.

Shape success

Another teaching skill that builds strong partnerships is shaping. Shaping is a process of developing behaviors in small steps. Experiencing shaping frees dogs to think on their own and offer spontaneous behavior without fear. Their human partners see these offerings and appreciate as their dogs' learning abilities grow. Good handlers begin to think about teaching in terms of building behaviors in small increments determined by the dog's response to each unit, rather than trying to teach a dog to perform a behavior all at once. I encourage my students to make increasing the frequency of successful responses their goal and to use that goal as a guide about when to increase the difficulty level of a task or back up a bit in training.

Shaping is also great fun! The first experience dogs in my class have with shaping is learning to touch and then follow a target. This skill is easy for most dogs to learn and comes in handy when you want to reposition a dog during a visit. It's done by holding the target, a hand or target stick, very close to a dog's nose and then clicking and dropping a treat when the dog touches it. With gradual repositioning of the target and frequent success, most dogs learn quickly. Targets can also be used to teach other behaviors. If you teach a dog to touch a paw to a target on the floor, you can gradually raise the target and then remove it in order to teach your dog to high five or wave.

My dogs and I visit two hospitals regularly and we use targeting at both. One week, Delilah and I go to a medical hospital; the next week Spring, my white standard poodle, and I go to a psychiatric hospital for children. At the medical hospital, a doctor's order is needed to enter a patient's room. I have taught Delilah to wave to a patient from the hall if we cannot go in. If we do go in, she waves goodbye at the end of the visit.

At the psychiatric hospital, Spring and I run a group for children on the autism spectrum. There, the target stick becomes a "magic wand" empowering the kids to direct Spring. The target stick is a plastic tube about a foot long and a half inch wide filled with shaped sequins floating in sparkly gelatinous material. The children love to "cast a spell" and make Spring spin.

Patricia and Molly


I have been doing therapy dog work for almost 20 years, through my work as a school psychologist and as a volunteer. The field has grown exponentially and today therapy dog teams are welcomed in a wide variety of settings. What services therapy dog teams offer and to whom vary. The constants in successful therapy dog work are: a person who loves a dog and is willing to share that love with others, a dog with a fitting personality, and a strong partnership solidified through serious training.

Molly was a gifted therapy dog and partner. She graced my life and the lives of countless others for more than 16 years. Someone once said that you never really lose someone who has died if you remember them. At the start of my therapy dog classes, I not only remember Molly, I see her, share her, and for a few minutes we are partners again.

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About the author
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Patricia Stokely, KPA CTP, combined her skills as an educator and dog trainer, and her love for children and dogs, into a remarkable career as a school psychologist with a focus on autism and animal-assisted therapy programs. Her mission continues to be fostering the human-animal bond and sharing the perspective and joy of clicker training.

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