Mutts can excel at pet therapy, but by nature, some purebred dogs show greater aptitude for this important work. Dogs that visit residents of retirement and nursing homes, patients in hospitals and hospices and institutions for kids with disabilities don't need the intensive training service dogs get in order to guide the blind, for instance. However, therapy dogs do need special qualities. The most important consideration is a perfect fit between a dog's size and personality and the fragile people whose lives will be enriched by his presence.
Passing the Exams
Institutions that use therapy dogs typically get them through regional therapy dog groups. Certification requirements among groups differ but generally, dogs at least 1 year of age must demonstrate compliance with basic obedience commands by passing the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen test. From there, dogs are evaluated for more individual suitability. Successful candidates must love people enough to enjoy being handled and fussed over by strangers; physically controlled enough to avoid displays of over-exuberance; and calm and stable psychologically. Dogs and owners who clear those hurdles go through training sessions geared to the kind of work they will be doing together in the institutions served by the group.
Giant Breeds: All the More to Cuddle
Very small children sometimes find extremely large dogs frightening but jumbo might be the ideal size for bigger kids and adults such as seniors in wheelchairs who can't easily bend over or reach out for a petting session. St. Bernards, Newfoundlands and Great Pyrenees are all known as bright, gentle, patient breeds. Walking into a hospital or nursing home with a Great Dane trotting by your side is guaranteed to attract attention but this imposing breed is also known for its friendliness.
The Middle Way: Medium to Larger Breeds
Golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and German shepherds have long been in demand as service dogs because of their intelligence, trainability and calm, stable temperaments. These qualities also make all three breeds excellent candidates for therapy dogs. Personality-wise, lean, lanky greyhounds, despite the speeds they're capable of running, tend to be low-key and laid-back. This combined with their short coats make them good breed choices for hospital work. Standard poodles and the smaller miniature and teacup sizes don't shed as much as other breeds, which makes them more welcome around people with allergies or breathing difficulties. Both Airedales and Bernese mountain dogs are known for gentleness.
Small Is Good But Take Care
The smaller the dog, the more important it becomes to avoid situations in which inadvertent rough handling might cause him harm. Beagles, corgis and French bulldogs are small yet sturdy enough to withstand firmer petting and hugging than many toy and teacup breeds. Lap dogs such as the Maltese, bichon frise, pug and Yorkshire terrier are all playful and affectionate but should be kept safely out of range of roughhousing kids. However, for bedridden or wheelchair-bound children and adults, these breeds could turn out to be just what the doctor ordered.