What training does my dog need to become a animal assisted therapy dog? | Kay Trotter

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What training does my dog need to become a animal assisted therapy dog?


I get asked this question alot:

“I am looking for ideas and suggestions for what type of training I should acquire for me and my puppy so that he can be used as a therapy dog.  My goal is to use him in therapy sessions with my clients. “

Because Animal Assisted Therapy is relatively new and exploding in the mental health field this, type of question is asked often. Along with similar questions as: What training is needed to incorporate horses into the therapy arena? But, that’s a horse of a different color and needs its own posting. This post will share some of the wonderful and much-needed answers that this question generated – I hope you find it valuable.

Dr Rise VanFleet

Dr Rise VanFleet

Rise VanFleet is a Psychologist, 
Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor, 
Certified Dog Behavior Consultant
 who has practiced for nearly 40 years. Her specialties are in traumatic events, chronic medical illness, strengthening parent-child relationships (esp. Filial Therapy), and Animal Assisted Play Therapy. She is the author of dozens of books, manuals, chapters, and articles on play therapy, Filial Therapy, AAPT, and canine behavior.


Risë VanFleet – This is such an important question!

Be really sure that if you go to training classes that you use positive methods, not compulsion methods with your puppy/dog. You have to be quite careful about this, as some force-oriented trainers are selling their work or their equipment using very misleading information. I have an article on my website about finding a good trainer near you (www.playfulpooch.org, under Resources). I’ve included there some questions you can ask and what answers to listen for. For therapy work, it’s incredibly important to use positive approaches because they build your own relationship with the dog and provide the right type of model for any clients that you work with. (Just on my short list: anything that includes electrical shocks or “taps” or prongs, or chokes, or poking the dog are not okay, and there are excellent positive training options available.)

  1. Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society) and TDI are both reputable programs, but the ACA insurance consideration would be an important one. TDI has a policy statement now that prohibits anyone certified through them to NOT certify with anyone else, which means that people seeking a further credential for therapy work, such as my more specialized certification in Animal Assisted Play Therapy, cannot do so. So that depends on what your own goals might be. When it comes to insurance, you’ll want to look into both professional liability insurance as well as general business liability insurance (which is for scratches, bites, dog knocks child down, etc.). I believe another person posted about this.
  2. The other response about socializing the dog and also watching out for the fear periods is very good!
  3. For you or anyone with puppies, there are a couple free booklets available by Dr. Ian Dunbar, available as downloads at www.dogstardaily.com, under Downloads.
  4. The book’s suggestions so far are excellent as well. I’ll add my own: Play Therapy with Kids & Canines, for those of you who work with children and have an interest in child-dog play interventions to meet therapeutic goals (it won the 2008 Dog Writers Association of America award for best of all therapy and service dog books for that year).
  5. For those with interests in working with children, teens, and families with children, I have an online course called “Introduction to Animal Assisted Play Therapy,” which offers 10 CE credits and includes information about the involvement of both dogs and horses. I’m just now finishing up another online course on Canine Communication for therapy work – how to recognize, read, and understand canine body language, one of the really critical skills that I think all of us therapists need to develop. By early 2013, I hope to have another online course available on Canine Behavior and Training. These are not intended to substitute for the actual work we need to be doing daily with our dogs, but to provide some guidance about the different methods and options. More info is at www.risevanfleet.com, where you can click to see the current Online Course as well as visit my Playful Pooch Program, where the live trainings are described (one is scheduled in PA for June 2013) and there are also some articles about AAPT, involving dogs and horses, etc.
  6.  Probably the best overall book about dog training, in my opinion, is Jean Donaldson’s Culture Clash. It reviews basic behaviorism in a non-trivial way, and applies everything to dogs. There are other excellent books as well.

I’m glad to try to answer further questions. Once I started involving one of my dogs in my play therapy work with children and families nearly 10 years ago, I realized how much more I had to learn, and have been involved in learning to train dogs using positive, relationship-building approaches and also canine behavior consultation work ever since. The nice thing is that learning all of this stuff adds to the fun you can have with your dog, and it’s all relevant to the therapeutic work most of us do, too.

I forgot to say earlier – I know that Pet Partners (Delta) advocates for positive training and does not permit or condone the use of prong, choke, or e-collars either (that is likely true of TDI as well).

I had one further thought that might be of interest to this group. On Facebook, I have a multidisciplinary group called Animal Assisted Play Therapy, and it is open to anyone who is interested in having discussions about the world of AAT, dog training and behavior, etc. It’s a very nice group, and we have therapists, dog trainers, veterinarians, writers, and others as part of the group.

One of the things that we started there (but need to pick back up with) is a collection of YouTube dog training videos that show some simple and dog-friendly methods to teach various things.

If you’d like to join that group, too, you can either just go to the group itself (Animal Assisted Play Therapy) and ask to join, or you can send me a friend request along with a private message indicating that you’d like to join that group, and I’ll add you myself. It’s a closed group so not everyone can see everything we’re talking about (and to keep spammers out if possible), but I accept anyone who has a legitimate interest.

Contact Rise VanFleet by visiting her website

Dr. Taylor and Eli

Dr. Carlene Taylor is the Clinical Director at LightHorse, a non-profit organization striving to guide people towards healing of the body, mind, and spirit through a partnership between humans and animals. Dr. Taylor works with her Portuguese Water Dog, Eli, in the treatment of children and families.


Dr. Carlene Taylor – I have trained my third office therapy dog. My first was a Dalmatian I had when I was in grad school and we did the best we could. The second was an English Mastiff who I used a systematix training from 5 weeks old, and my current dog, Eli, is 2-years-old and just completed a very rigorous process. He is my best trained yet. All total, I’ve had a K9 partner for more than 15 years.

Here is what I do:

Buy the book “How to raise a puppy you can live with”

  • Read it cover-to-cover and have a professional perform temperament testing so you know what you are working with
  • Pursue basic puppy obedience in GROUP lessons
  • Take every opportunity to socialize your pup
  • Graduate from puppy school and do intermediate training with a group trainer.
  • At a year or 18 months (maybe 2), when the dog has begun to show some signs of beginning to mature, pursue AKC Canine Good Citizen training to test.
  • Finally, I finished Eli off with Delta Society’s Pet Partners training and testing.

Eli, my therapy dog, can do anything and go anywhere without incident.  In the process of completing this training, our relationship deepened and we learned how to work together.

I have three books I live by: Dr. Cynthia Chandler’s Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling, Aubry Fine’s Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy and Temple Grandin’s Animals Make us Human

This is what I do: in addition to being very particular to follow the developmental milestones outlined in the puppy training book during the first two years,  I make very sure Eli gets what he needs in terms of socialization, dog play times and the balanced relationship of respect and responsiveness to my authority. In the office, I hold him accountable to basic behavioral limits but let him be free to relate to clients without my interference.

There is a workbook I have worked on with colleague, The Therapy Dog Primer.  We have considered doing a 2-day workshop for those who might want to learn the field.  How many of you would go?  What would you be willing/able to pay for a CEU class that prepared you to communicate with and train your dog to enter the field?

Contact Dr. Carlene Taylor at TaylorLightHorse, Inc.www.lighthorse.org, www.drcarlene.com or carlene@drcarlene.com

Christi Dudzik and Paddy

Christi Dudzik is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and owner of the company, Healing Paws, Inc., which provides therapy handler-animal training for volunteers and professionals and provides facility therapy animal programming. She has been a Pet Partners teammate to multiple dogs since 1993 and is a Master Pet Partners Handler and Evaluator Instructor.


Christi Dudzik – I’d like to address your question regarding therapy team training, evaluation, registration. Hands down, without a doubt, you want to pursue Pet Partners® Therapy Animal Program. Their program is the gold standard in the industry. Their’s is a standards-based program, with a strong sense of accountability.

Their evaluation truly evaluates both ends of the leash.  They want to see how you, the handler, will be proactive and supportive of your pup, and want to see impulse control, response to your commands, and how much your pup appears to be enjoying the interactions with the evaluator and evaluation volunteers.

The evaluation is divided into vignettes, so that it flows as naturally as possible, and looks like a real-life visit in a health care setting. Their reason for the evaluation being focused on health care settings is that, if the team is prepared for working with such fragile and somewhat unpredictable people and situations, they will be ready to visit in other settings. Also, every two years, in order to maintain current Pet Partners team registration, you and your pup will need to go through the evaluation again.

The team evaluation is one step in their process. You, the handler, also need to either go through a workshop or complete their online course, and then there is the veterinarian check, and other paperwork in the registration packet to complete. It is a well thought out process that takes more time than with other registering organizations.

One other thing, there is a different mind-set between “using” our therapy dogs and “working with” them. “Working with” indicates team work. “Using” indicates it is all about the dog. I have been a registered teammate to dogs since 1993.

Contact Christi Dudzik, MC, LMHC, cwdudzik@healingpaws.com, (425) 488-3061 or www.healingpaws.com



Terry Abell, LMHC has used animal assisted therapy primarily with at-risk youth for over 10 years and training interns from a variety of fields (such as Social Work, Counseling, Art Therapy, Child Dev., etc.) to utilize animals in therapy. Terry is a Certified Counseling Supervisor, Delta Pet Partner and teaches at Florida State University multicultural Center in Tallahassee, Fla.


Terry Abble – I would strongly suggest a basic puppy obedience class, it will help you understand how to train him and give him practice in focusing w/distractions. It’s also a good time to take him out and start widely socializing him. I took my first therapy dog to festivals, to restaurants where we could sit outside, to street fairs, etc., anywhere we could meet and greet people and to get him used to folks wanting to come up and pet him and talk to him. My default position is having him sit with his back to me, almost on my feet, when he meets new people. That way he is secure, can’t have kids coming from behind to grab his tail, etc. and I can control their access to him. Learning to take treats from strangers (with your permission) is a good skill to have. He is old enough to sit, down, wait, etc. to earn the treats. I think impulse control is pretty important for puppies to learn from the get go, especially ones who will be used in therapy.

It is important to know your dog well, and watch for signs of being over-faced with too much stimuli, especially when they go through the “fear phase” of development. Reducing exposure to whatever is stressing him and gradually reintroducing later is important. I think having some positive crate training will give him a place to go if he feels the need for a time out and just an overall good skill for any dog to have (not advocating long stretches in a crate, I might add, especially for a doodle.)

Patricia McConnell is a very good canine behaviorist, you may want to check out some of her writings.

Contact Terry Abell at: tabell@FSU.EDU

Jamie Neff  – I have worked with and trained dogs, horses, etc. for a long time and I recommend you take your pup ASAP. Take him to outings and anywhere to get him accustomed to people and traveling. The more your dog is around people and their special needs, the more accustomed he will become to them.

Not only does your pup need to interact with people, but you will find he will gravitate toward people with specific needs and will want to avoid people with other special needs. This is ok! They do not teach you these things in the “formal” trainings. I have been training animals for about 10 years. I have learned that all animals will gravitate toward people with different things going on. They have a specialty, so-to-speak. I have a dog that gets terrified and hides under the desk when people hallucinate in my office. I also have a dog that refuses to participate in nursing home ventures because she becomes too overwhelmed (she sniffs out people with pain, and the nursing home is just too much.)

So, start now “listening” to your pup. Encourage him to be curious and interact! He will teach you a wealth of information. And, by starting early around people and in training basic obedience, there is no need for formal training and extensive tricks unless your facility requires a certificate of completion for legal reasons. Instead, at our farm, we require all our volunteers to spend so much time in the herd or pack taking notes of how they communicate to each other. This is essential to training your dog, llama, sheep, horse, etc.

I would like to add some thoughts to the one who discussed desensitizing and socializing. We, too, rescue many of our pups and give them a purpose at the farm, in nursing homes, in the counseling practice, etc. However, I do not suggest adopting an adult dog and then going through the desensitizing process as outlined. There are many dogs with PTSD that become more fearful. It takes and experienced person with a lot of patience to adopt pets and then incorporate them into the public settings. The dog needs to learn he can trust you before you can begin desensitizing and socializing him. This is a must!!! Otherwise, he will become more fearful. Additionally, as you are patiently and carefully desensitizing  and socializing your adopted dog, tell others of any issues he has so they can be forewarned to any behavioral problems.  Adopting a dog is wonderful, but you have to be sensitive to its needs, challenges, fears, and encourage them often. Allowing them opportunities to build trust with you and be curious will enable them to grow in confidence. And, if the dog has been abused, it requires even more time and patience. The adopted pup is just as amazing as a new pup, and just as helpful and loving and nurturing! But, an adopted dog (or even pup) requires more patience to build trust and break down barriers before the trusting process can begin. You can’t skip this process or you hurt the true potential of your relationship with your dog.

Contact Jamie Neff: www.precioushelpers.org or e-mail jamie@precioushelpers.org or call 967-2865