Hudson Valley Humane Society
Visiting Pet Program
Providing Animal Assisted Activity and Animal Assisted Therapy since 1994.
Our website address is www.HudsonValleyVisitingPets.com
Topsy and Friday on a visit.
Roberta and Chip visit Scouts.
Brian and Cleo work with children
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.
Teal hopes to remedy that situation by formally studying therapy dogs in action, something she has done informally for eleven years as a volunteer and trainer in Animal Assisted Activity (AAA) and Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) programs. She teaches AAA/T training workshops and evaluates pet/handler teams for Delta Society (an international organization that promotes the improvement of human health through service and therapy animals), humane societies, and pet therapy groups in the U.S., including as the Hudson Valley Humane Society Visiting Pet Program in New York, as well as Pattes Tendue, or Touch of the Paw, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.
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.
Training Therapy Dogs
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.”
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The Hudson Valley Humane Society Visiting Pet Program
104 Lake Road, Valley Cottage, NY 10989
We are a not-for-profit organization. Donations graciously accepted.