Therapy dogs work in schools, airports, courthouses, nursing homes, mental health clinics, and other community organizations. Depending on their role and training, they listen to young readers, distract anxious travelers, support crime victims during legal testimony, and provide frail older adults with comforting memories of days gone by.
They participate in physical or occupational therapy sessions to help patients improve their strength, task persistence, and motivation. In counseling offices, they join in activities to help clients reach their mental health goals.
The animals that complete these versatile tasks are as varied as their skill set, from the smallest terrier to the massive Saint Bernard. Yet despite all this magnificent diversity, the most successful therapy dogs have some specific characteristics and traits in common that uniquely position them to work as helpers in healthcare, education, and other community settings.
Characteristics of Successful Therapy Dogs
Centuries of domestication and selective breeding have cultivated particular qualities such as temperament, affiliation, docility, and tameness that are ideally suited to some dogs for animal-assisted activities. Obedience training shapes these characteristics, which are evaluated through formal testing as part of the team registration process.
Temper refers to the innate disposition. It is instinctive and innate, a biological inheritance that is not easily amenable to change. It is also distinguished from learned behavior.
For example, untrained herding breed puppies attempt to control each other’s movements by circling, biting, barking, or staring (Renna, 2012). This behavior represents a natural and inherent disposition that can be developed and refined through training. These traits are desirable for field work, but are disadvantageous for therapy dogs, who are expected to display a relaxed and calm demeanor.
affiliative dogs are socially confident and outgoing; they enjoy and request interaction with people beyond their immediate family. They do not get upset in groups and are comfortable offering and receiving affection. They show enthusiasm and curiosity rather than reluctance or shyness when meeting new people. Affiliative dogs are comfortable with themselves and with others.
Docile dogs thrive on loving relationships with their guardian handlers. They prioritize human companionship, accept and trust human leadership, and are motivated to work for the reward of treats, games, or praise. They also demonstrate an aptitude for learning new skills.
Some sporting breeds, such as Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers, are known to be exceptionally docile; this explains their popularity as therapy, service, and emotional support animals.
Gentle the dogs are consistently tolerant and patient. For example, they respond benignly to involuntary rough contact, such as a well-intentioned but clumsy blow to the head or side by a patient with poor physical coordination. Guardian handlers are responsible for safeguarding their dogs and promptly redirecting this behavior; Gentle dogs trust their handlers to protect them and physically withdraw from uncomfortable contact rather than react aggressively.
Obedient the dogs happily submit to the leadership of their guardian handler. They reliably respond to verbal instructions and can also understand gestural commands.
Interestingly, research shows that dogs respond more reliably to gestures than verbal instructions (D’Aniello et al., 2016). This finding supports the preference of handlers who train their dogs to respond to both voice and gestures or gestures only.
Obedient dogs inhibit undesirable behaviors such as chewing, barking, licking, pushing or kicking. They trot in smooth alignment alongside their guides, ignoring environmental distractions. They perfectly follow the instructions to sit, (lie down), stay, come, leave it, give it, watch and wait.
Capitalize on strengths
If you have confirmed that your beloved canine is an ideal candidate for animal-assisted activities, congratulations! Now may be the time to try and sign up with a therapy dog organization so she can start visiting.
On the other hand, maybe you’ve read this far and started to realize that your pup might not be right for this type of job. Maybe not particularly affiliative; he adores you but is indifferent to others. Maybe he doesn’t like being touched by strangers, or he’s a content homebody who gets dizzy and anxious during travel. Perhaps you are stressed and overwhelmed by unfamiliar sounds, rolling carts, crutches, slippery floors, or automatic doors.
Training and desensitization could eventually change some of these responses. However, as your dog’s advocate, it is your job to ensure his well-being and respect his needs and preferences. Even if it’s his dream to participate in animal-assisted activities, you owe it to his friend to make sure it’s his idea of a good time, too.
Context is important when considering “ideal characteristics” and “great traits.” Not all activities are suitable for all dogs. The athletic, rambunctious canine impatiently pacing the hospice may have champion potential in lure racing, and the placid pup roaming the children’s hospital would probably flunk an agility competition. Respect your best friend by helping him develop his full potential, whatever that may be, instead of putting him in the mold of what you would like him to become.
In many ways, our dogs are just like us: individuals with unique strengths, interests, and talents just waiting to be discovered and fulfilled. Here’s hoping that you and your pup find your happiness, doing whatever makes you both move for joy.