Therapy dogs provide companionship, supportive listening and symptom management to hospice patients. Residents who are dealing with end-of-life issues find comfort in holding, petting and talking to their four-legged visitors. But before a dog can be entrusted to interact with ill patients, the animal must demonstrate controllability and appropriate temperament. Therapy Dogs International (TDI) has established testing requirements to ensure that a dog will not become aggressive or disruptive toward patients. Training focuses on basic commands that will prepare an animal to be evaluated and selected by a hospice organization.
Answer these two questions before getting started: Has your dog ever exhibited aggression toward another person, and is your dog predictable? Your fuzzy-faced friend is a candidate for animal-assisted therapy (AAT) if you said "no" to the first question and "yes" to the second.
Practice basic one-word commands such as "come," "down," "sit" and "stay." Reward obedience with a little piece of food and verbal praise until your pet masters each order.
Observe your canine's manners while walking it on a six-inch leash. If it pulls or barks, speak commands such as "stay" or "come" and reward appropriate behavior with treats.
Allow your dog to become comfortable with other people and animals. Walk your dog through areas with pedestrian traffic so that it becomes accustomed to crowds.
Train your dog using "shaping" techniques. This requires you to reward a pet's attempts to comply with an order even if at first it does not completely fulfill your request. For instance, if you ask the dog to "shake" and it raises its paw just a little bit, go ahead and offer the treat. But over time, give the snack only when the dog actually shakes hands with you.
Give your dog time to learn all of these behaviors. You are building controllability that will make it a better hospice dog. Your goal is to be able to control your dog with only verbal commands and pats on the head instead of food.
Review the TDI's 11-step test online at "Therapy Dogs International: Testing Brochure" to ensure that your dog is ready to be evaluated to work in a hospice setting. Practice several dress rehearsals of the 11 steps before contacting any hospice organization or the TDI. You must be certain that your dog does not exhibit signs of aggression as you do these trial runs.
Make your dog "sit," "stay" and "come" by verbal command. When it is ready to be tested, this will demonstrate your dog's successful training.
Ask someone who is unfamiliar with your dog to pet and speak to it. This shows your pet is comfortable with strangers. Also have a stranger and his dog approach you so you can see whether your own dog politely interacts with new people and dogs without becoming boisterous or shy.
Walk your dog through a crowd to prove that you can handle it in public areas.
Contact your local hospice or therapy dog program to arrange for an evaluation of your dog.