by CJ Puotinen  

Reprinted with permission from OffLead Magazine, Volume 3, Edition 1, 2002

Since pets were first allowed in America’s hospitals and nursing homes, researchers have documented the benefits of their visits. Thanks to overwhelmingly positive publicity, the demand for pet therapy has grown, and today several local and national organizations offer information, training, testing, registration, and liability insurance.

“Most professionals agree that you need more than just a friendly, happy dog,” says Animal Assisted Therapy specialist Elizabeth Teal, “but no one has really defined what therapy dogs do. Instead, the focus has been on obedience.”

Unfortunately, she says, obedience training is not the ideal preparation for therapy work, any more than it is for herding, search and rescue, or other canine activities. You cannot train a genuine therapeutic-intervention animal with the obedience model, says Teal, because conventional obedience training interferes with therapy work by extinguishing the very behaviors therapy work requires.

What’s wrong with obedience?

“Let’s start with attention training,” says Teal. “It’s become so popular that dogs and puppies around the world are taught before anything else to focus on their handlers. But therapy dogs should not focus on their handlers. They should listen to their handlers and focus on the people they’re visiting. A truly effective therapy dog looks out, away from her handler. Yes, she must have good manners, no pulling or jumping, but that has nothing to do with eye contact.”

When evaluating pets for Animal Assisted Therapy, Teal often sees dogs with extensive obedience training. “They’re gorgeous to watch,” she says, “and I admire their precision, but when they devote all their attention to their handlers and none to the people they’re supposed to interact with, they simply aren’t doing what therapy dogs have to do. It is very upsetting for those who have wonderful, friendly, sweet-tempered dogs to discover that the dogs aren’t ready for therapy work because they aren’t able to give attention to others. They simply haven’t been trained, or even allowed, to do that.”

Teal’s solution is to work up a different set of commands and teach them at the same time as anything else the dog is learning. “Just use different words,” she explains. “Most dogs can comfortably understand at least 60 words. They learn them even when we don’t realize it. Go for a walk? Ride in the car? Peanut butter? They adapt their behavior to the situation at hand and can easily learn one set of commands for obedience and another for therapy work or any other activity.”

Teal advises starting with a happy, social dog in a happy, social situation. She recommends marker training, using a clicker, whistle, word, signal, or other marker combined with positive reinforcement.

“When your dog softly looks at someone and gently wags her tail, give a click and a treat. As soon as she’s confident going into social situations, looking at people and wagging her tail, start naming the behavior as you click and reward her. You could say, ‘Look who’s here,’ or something like that. As soon as she starts stepping forward to reach people, reward her and say, ‘Go say hi.’ Don’t use the word ‘heel’ in this setting because you don’t want her attention on you. Instead, use ‘Let’s go’ or another word for loose-lead walking. When your dog is in heel position but looking forward, reward her. You want her attention out, away from you, toward the world she’ll be visiting, not gazing intently at your face.”

Obedience commands have a place in visits to hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities, says Teal, but not as a demonstration of your control over your animal. “That isn’t sharing,” she explains, “that’s showing off. It’s particularly inappropriate in facilities where the patients or residents have little or no control over their lives. Here’s an activity that’s supposed to include them, and all they’re allowed to do is watch. Instead of excluding people as you conduct a drill, include them as participants.

“If your utility or tracking dog does beautiful scent discrimination, make that part of a demonstration. Have every person in the group hold a different scent article, choose one person whose object the dog is going to find, then double-scent the article by holding it yourself before setting it on the floor. Now you’re not saying, ‘Look at me, my dog identifies my scent,’ you’re saying, ‘Look he picked out the one Mrs. Jones held.’ Your dog is still using his utility training or tracking skills, and you’re actually proofing him at the same time, but for the people you’re visiting, it’s an exciting game that involves them. Mrs. Jones gets excited and says, ‘He found me!’ You then say, ‘Go say hi,’ and your dog makes Mrs. Jones’s day by walking straight to her for petting instead of running back to gaze at you as though you’re God.”

Training Therapy Dogs

 When therapy dogs were first trained, tested, registered, and insured, most had obedience titles. That’s changing, says Teal, as national organizations shift their attention toward pets with no formal credentials. If someone wants to work toward a CD (Companion Dog title), perfect heel position is important, but for someone who only wants to walk down the street without being pulled in all directions, it isn’t. “Dogs don’t have to be staring at you to pay attention,” says Teal. “Watch your dog. Check to see if he’s sitting beside or slightly in front of you, one ear cocked in case you say something. Start reinforcing that kind of attention.”

Many pet owners have no idea what sports and activities they might enjoy; they only want a dog that won’t jump on people or chew the sofa. By describing canine sports, therapy work, and other activities, dog trainers can direct their students toward possible long-term goals and make basic obedience more interesting and rewarding. Another thing to emphasize in the training of therapy dogs is positive touch. In most obedience classes, dogs learn to stand perfectly still while a judge or other stranger touches them. That posture is not appropriate for a dog in therapeutic intervention.

“The best therapy dogs don’t just let you handle their paws,” says Teal. “They stay soft and relaxed while you do it. They don’t just let you touch their ears, they move forward to you can really reach them. They nuzzle arms and elbows, solicit petting, and melt into those who touch them.”

In addition to being friendly, therapy dogs need a stable temperament, confidence, and the ability to recover quickly from distractions.

Many of the best therapy dogs come from homes with small children, who can be excellent trainers, or they belong to people who take them everywhere.

“Just make sure the experience is positive,” says Teal, “and that means positive for the dog rather than you. One of the major laws of learning is that for a reward to be effective, it has to be meaningful to the one who receives it.”

To be sure new experiences are positive, owners have to be observant. Tucking the tail is a sign of stress, as is yawning or panting. More serious stress behaviors include frantically licking or smelling the floor, shedding, drooling, and showing the whites of the eyes. “Any dog showing these signs needs relief,” she says, “whether it’s a few minutes in a quiet corner, a walk outside, or a trip home. Forcing the dog to continue can be very harmful. Many, many social dogs become even more social under stress, moving into appeasement and displacement behaviors. They wag more, smile more, and ask for more and more petting. They may look happier and more charged up, but what they really need is a break. It’s important that handlers understand their dogs and recognize their needs at a glance.”

In America’s cities, suburbs, and rural areas, pet therapy programs are growing fast. By understanding what therapy dogs do, owners and trainers can work together to identify good candidates for this work, then encourage behaviors that make the activity successful and rewarding.


2017 Update: This article was written 15 years ago, when pet therapy was less familiar to Americans than it is today, but its basic concepts haven’t changed. Training workshops that are especially helpful to therapy dogs in training include puppy kindergarten, basic obedience including the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program, fun canine sports like Rally Obedience, and therapy dog training classes. For training recommendations, contact us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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