How Are Therapy Dogs Evaluated?

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From the book EVERY DOG HAS A GIFT: True Stories of Dogs Who Bring Hope & Healing Into Our Lives by Rachel McPherson, founder and executive director of the Good Dog Foundation.

The Good Dog Foundation offers a thorough evaluation, training program, and follow-up program for its Good Dog Therapy teams. The Foundation initially evaluates the handler and the dog as a team to determine which level class they are placed in. Good Dog offers fundamental obedience, basic obedience, and therapy dog classes. If the handler-dog teams pass the class and become certified, they are completely supported by The Good Dog Foundation staff.

Here are more details on how The Good Dog Foundation program works.

How Are Therapy Dogs Evaluated?

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Initial Evaluation Session

To ensure that a dog and its handler have at least the potential to succeed in the program, they must undergo a brief (about fifteen-minute) evaluation session conducted by a Good Dog trainer. During this session, the trainer observes a dog’s personality, energy level, sociability (with people and with other dogs), and the handler’s relationship with and basic control of the dog.

The trainer then recommends one of the following courses of action for the potential volunteer handler-dog team:

  • Join the Good Dog Foundation Fundamental Training and Evaluation Course — four sessions
  • Join the Good Dog Foundation Basic Training and Evaluation Course — four sessions
  • Join the Good Dog Foundation Therapy Dog Training and Evaluation Course — five sessions
  • Seek out additional training first, which will give your dog more time to mature, and return for an evaluation at a later date.
  • Consider an alternative activity for which your dog’s temperament may be better suited.

When a trainer recommends the last option, it may be because the dog displays one or more of the following behaviors and/or conditions that are not compatible with therapy dog service:

  • Aggression toward people
  • Aggression toward other dogs
  • Obvious signs of fearfulness or shyness
  • Urinating or defecating indoors
  • Overexcitability (e.g., excessive barking, licking, and wiggliness, jumping up on people, mouthing, or pawing)
  • Advanced age
  • Medical concerns

The Good Dog Foundation trainers also observe some human behaviors that are incompatible with therapy dog service. These include:

  • Abusive or rough handling of the dog
  • Non-nurturing nature
  • Harsh or punishing training methods
  • Unwillingness to take direction from Good Dog Foundation trainers
  • Lack of attention to the dog’s behavior in his surroundings

The Good Dog Foundation’s trainers recognize that dogs, like people, may perform better or worse on a test on any given day, and that behavior is not constant and immutable. That’s why The Good Dog Foundation’s total evaluation process is based on performance throughout the training course, not just on a single test. Over the duration of the training sessions, the dogs are exposed to many different people and stimuli with which they can become increasingly confident. This process ultimately leads to consistently safe and enjoyable visits for the clients, handlers, and dogs alike.

Copyright © 2010 by Rachel McPherson and Lynn Sonberg. Reprinted by arrangement with Tarcher Books, an imprint of Penguin Group USA, Inc.

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