Who Wants to be a Therapy Dog?

This article is by A-DOG member Sue Gilday who is one of three A-DOG members who, with their dogs, recently completed training through Dog B.O.N.E.S., Therapy Dogs of Massachusetts.  The A-DOG therapy dog teams are:  Sue Gilday and Sasuke; Sue Doctrow and Candace; and David White and Benny.



“He’d be perfect!” That was my sister’s response when I told her that I had enrolled my dog, Sasuke, in the Dog B.O.N.E.S. therapy dog training class. Her Bernese Mountain Dog had been a therapy dog some years ago, so she has an idea what it takes. I was pretty sure that my calm, friendly shepherd mix would fit the bill. After attending the class, however, I found that there was a lot I didn’t know, or that I had wrong. Here are a few of the misconceptions I had about therapy dogs:


Your dog has to be a certain size. I had thought that the ideal therapy dog had to be big enough so that a person sitting in a wheelchair could easily reach its head. Our class consisted of dogs ranging from an 90 lb. goldendoodle to a tiny 15 lb. cavalier king charles spaniel. People can pick up therapy dogs and hold them in their lap if they wish, in which case, the littler the better.


You have to have a perfectly trained dog. Sure, in the ideal world we’d all have perfectly obedient dogs. Most of the dogs in the class were really distracted by the other dogs and forgot the most basic commands. As long as your dog attends to you and can behave on leash, you’re good.


Therapy dogs have to be smart. Nope–they’re not service dogs. All they have to be is cute and sweet. And unlike service dogs, they can be petted. In fact, that’s their main job.


The class is for your dog. Therapy dog training is actually more for the human than it is for the dog. In class we learned how to approach people in wheelchairs or walkers, what to talk about, the kinds of questions that may come up during a visit. The dogs pretty much sat there and wondered why they didn’t get to romp around with the other dogs.


Your dog must be adaptable to any situation. This was a good thing to know: not every situation will be right for a dog, and we have to gauge our dog’s response to each visit. My dog gets slightly wigged out around little kids because they tend to move unpredictably. So we’ll likely avoid such visits. You may plan nursing home visits only to find that your dog needs more activity. Its OK–there are so many opportunities for different types of visits. At least one is bound to suit your dog’s taste.


All visits involve the infirm or disabled. Among the opportunities that I’m most looking forward to are visits to colleges where therapy dogs offer stress relief to students during midterms or finals. A request recently came in to talk to a cub scout troop about what therapy dogs do. Another opportunity (for which you need additional training) is to be a reading buddy to young readers.


It’s difficult to obtain therapy dog certification. Well, Sasuke and I graduated, so how hard could it be? Three 90 minute classes and a straightforward test to demonstrate how well you handle your dog. After that, we got a certificate, an official Dog B.O.N.E.S. bandana (for Sasuke) and a T-shirt (for me). Oh, and the requisite graduation photo–mortarboard and all!


Now that we are a card-carrying Dog B.O.N.E.S. team, our real test will be out there in the real world. We can’t wait to get going! Stay tuned for updates on our first few visits.