In this episode of The Woof Meow Show from October 21, 2017, Don and Kate discuss electronic shock collars. While Don and Kate would never recommend using a shock collar on a dog for any reason, they recognize that not everyone who uses a shock collar on their dog does so understanding the harm it can cause. Sadly, often the companies that sell and manufacture shock collars do not provide you with all of the information you need to make an informed decision.
This show addresses the following questions;
What is a shock collar?,
How are shock collars used?,
How does a shock collar change a dog’s behavior?,
What makes the use of a shock collar inappropriate?,
What do experts say about shock collars?, and
What can people concerned about a dogs well-being do to help prevent dogs from getting shocked?
< A version of this article was published in the October 2017 issue of Downeast Dog News>
Dogs were first referred to as “Man’s best friend” in 1789 by Frederick, King of Prussia. Today it is not uncommon for a person to say that they consider their dog to not only be their friend but to be a member of their family. That is how I view both my dog and cats. In spite of this apparent devotion to dogs, there are still too many people in this country that routinely use electronic shock collars to subject their dogs to shock on a regular basis, all in the name of training and containment.
When a dog receives an electric shock from a shock collar, the shock is meant to be sufficiently aversive to change the dog’s behavior. An aversive typically causes either physical or emotional pain or both. If the dog does not find the shock aversive, the shock will not stop the behavior. That is basic psychology. Rewarding a dog for a behavior causes that behavior to increase, and punishing a dog or adding an aversive, causes a behavior to decrease. Those that insist the shock does not hurt the dog and that it is merely a “stim” or “tickle” are either misleading people or do not understand the fundamentals of psychology and learning theory.
What makes the use of electric shock on animals even more distressing than the fact that we are intentionally hurting our pets, is that science has demonstrated that the use of punishment is unnecessary to train or manage a pet. In fact, we know with certainty, that the use of shock and other aversives can be extremely detrimental. The use of aversives can damage the bond we have with our pet, impair our pet’s ability to learn, and often cause fear and aggression. Considering that shock is unnecessary, its use amounts to nothing less than abuse. So I ask, why would anyone intentionally abuse their best friend or a family member?
Since its beginnings in 2012, The Pet Professional Guild (PPG) has advocated against the use of aversives in the training and management of pets. In 2015, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), an accreditation body for veterinary practices and hospitals, issued their Behavior Management Guidelines. The guidelines clearly state: “Aversive techniques include prong (pinch) or choke collars, cattle prods, alpha rolls, dominance downs, electronic shock collars, lunge whips, starving or withholding food, entrapment, and beating.None of those tools and methods should be used to either teach or alter behavior.” [Emphasis added]. The experts on our pets health, behavior, and training agree; shock should NEVER be used.
Whether the use of electric shock is intentional, due to casual disregard because “it is just a dog,” or due to ignorance, I and many others believe it is time for this inhumane treatment of our best friends and family members to stop. On September 25th the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) launched the Shock-Free Coalition ( http://www.shockfree.org ) “…an initiative that aims to build an international movement committed to eliminating shock devices once and for all in the care, training and management of pets.” This noble cause is long overdue and one that I support without hesitation. I hope that you will join me in this movement to educate and advocate for the abolishment of the use of shock devices for the management and training of our best friends and family members. Please take the first step, and join me by taking the pledge at http://www.petprofessionalguild.com/Sign-The-Pledge.
What else can you do to support the Shock-Free Coalition?
Dog Parents – Ask any and every pet care provider that participates in the care of your dog (animal shelters, boarding kennels, breeders, daycares, dog walkers, groomers, humane societies, pet related periodicals, pet sitters, places you buy pet food and supplies, rescues. Veterinarians, ) if they are aware of the Shock-Free Coalition and if they have taken the pledge. Encourage them to do so. If they chose not to take the pledge, ask them why. Suggest that they do some research and reconsider. You might even provide them with a copy of this column. If they are still unwilling to take the pledge, remember, you can choose who gets your pet related business. Sometimes money speaks louder than words.
Pet Care Professionals – Take the pledge and make your support known to your employees, customers, and clients. Tell them about the pledge and ask them to take it as well. Show your support for the Shock-Free Coalition with signs in your facility, articles in your newsletter, information on your website, and with posts on social media. I know that pet parents care about this issue and they want to know that you care too!
Dog Parents and Pet Care Professionals in Maine – It is my goal to place an ad in the November issue of Down East Dog News listing everyone one in the state of Maine who has taken the pledge. We need to show that those that still recommend and sell shock collars are a minority. We need to show them that we want to stop the unnecessary abuse of our pets. To make that ad happen, I need your help and some donations. Learn how to add your name to the list for the November ad and to make a donation at http://bit.ly/Shock-FreeME
To learn more about the problems with shock collars, visit these resources:
Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop (greenacreskennel.com ) in Bangor. He is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC) and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). He produces and co- hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show heard on The Pulse AM620 WZON and streamed at http://www.wzonradio.com/ every Saturday at 9 AM. A list of upcoming shows and podcasts of past shows can be found at www.woofmeowshow.com. Don also writes about pets at his blog: www.words-woofs-meows.com. He is committed to pet care and pet training that is free of pain, force, and fear. The opinions in this post are those of Don Hanson.
Contact: Don Hanson Green Acres Kennel Shop 945-6841
[Bangor] – Green Acres Kennel Shop is honored to be part of the Shock-Free Coalition, a global initiative launched today, by the Pet Professional Guild (PPG). The PPS is an international membership association for animal behavior and training professionals. The Shock-Free Coalition aims to end the practice of using electric shock to train and care for pets.
Green Acres Kennel Shop first warned our clients of the dangers of the use of shock collars in an article in our newsletter in May of 2004. Although we have never used shock collars at Green Acres, we officially adopted and announced our Pet-Friendly Policy in the spring of 2006 when we learned of other kennels and daycare’s using these devices on their client’s dogs. Eventually we also added our position statement on the Use of Dominance and Punishment for the Training and Behavior Modification of Dogs
I am astounded and disappointed that it is still legal in many countries, including the USA, for pet owners to deliver an electric shock to a collar worn by their cat or dog via the simple press of a button from a remote control. Countless studies, conducted by veterinary scientists and canine behavior specialists, indicate that using pain and fear to train animals can cause physical injury, as well as a host of psychological issues that may include their becoming fearful of other animals and people — and potentially aggression. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) explicitly states that shock collars nor any other aversive should be used to train or manage animals in their Behavior Management Guidelines of 2015.
Anyone who loves animals and wishes to share their support for this initiative may do so by taking the pledge by clicking on the graphic to the left or the following link www.shockfree.org. You may also learn more at the Shock-Free Coalition website.
An article by Green Acres Kennel Shop owner, Don Hanson, The Unintended Consequences of Shock Collars, can be found on his blog at http://bit.ly/ShockCollars If you wish to participate in a Maine based shock-free coalition, you may learn more by clicking on the graphic to the right or on the following link http://bit.ly/Shock-FreeME.
In business since 1965, Green Acres Kennel Shop, located at 1653 Union Street, is committed to pet-friendly, force-free pet care. We offer boarding, daycare, and grooming for dogs, as well as pet behavior consultations and group and private dog training classes. Voted Best Kennel every year since 2002, Best Pet Store every year since 2007, Best Dog Trainer every year since 2011, and Best Pet Groomer every year since 2013, the Green Acres retail store offers a wide variety of wholesome pet foods, treats, and quality supplies. In December of 2016, we were recognized by Best Businesses of America as one of the Top 15 Kennels and Top 40 Dog Trainers in New England. We are a proud member of The Pet Professional Guild. For more information, please call 945-6841 or visit www.greenacreskennel.com.
If you have a new dog that is 12 weeks of age and older, this is the article you want. If you have a puppy between 8 and 16 weeks of age, check out this article – http://bit.ly/EspcNewPuppyParents
A new dog can be a great addition to your family, but they will also require some work on your part. Older dogs may come to your home already trained and ready to be that perfect companion, but more often than not, a dog ends up in a rescue or shelter because they have some behavioral issues. They were probably not well socialized and had little or no training. It is also entirely possible that their previous family inadvertently created some problem behaviors by unintentionally rewarding those behaviors. This article offers some recommendations to help you and your new friend get off to the best start possible.
My first word of advice; “patience.” It is very easy to want the ideal dog immediately, but just as “Rome was not built in a day,” Your will not dog be the perfect companion in a week, nor in all likelihood in a month. Training is a process, and as such it takes time. Yes, there will times you may become frustrated, but when you look back in a year you will realize it was a precious time for you and your dog, one filled with learning and fun!
I encourage you to read the following shared blog post, all about patience, by dog trainer Nancy Tanner. Read it, print it, and then post it on your refrigerator, or somewhere in your home where it is close at hand anytime you are feeling frustrated with your dog. –
Enrolling yourself and your dog in a reward-based dog training class designed by a Certified Professional Dog Trainer is the best thing you can do for you and your dog. Not all trainers and dog training classes are equal. Because dog training is currently a non-regulated and non-licensed profession, the quality of instruction and practices used can vary widely, sometimes into the inhumane. The following article will provide you with information on what to look for in a dog trainer and dog training facility.
Do not try to teach your dog everything at once. We will teach you certain behaviors, in a specific order, for a reason; to make training easier.
During the critical socialization period, between 8 and 16 weeks of age, it is far more important to work on planning and appropriately socializing and habituating your dog than it is to teach them to shake or any other behavior. This is a limited period, and you want to make the most of it. Inadequate or inappropriate socialization is a common reason dogs develop behavioral problems such as aggression and anxiety.
If your dog is older than 16 weeks of age, it is still important for you to read the following article. If you see any signs of shyness, timidity or fearful behavior, contact us and make an appointment for a Help Now! session so that we can offer you some guidance on a remedial socialization program for your puppy. Socialization is not as simple and straightforward as meeting the neighbors and their dog or taking your dog to the dog park. In fact, a visit to the dog park may be the worst thing that you can do.
If you are having problems with your dog guarding food and other items, stealing things, or growling, make an appointment with us for a Help Now! session as soon as possible. Punishment in any form will likely make these behaviors worse and could result in someone being bitten.
Dogs and children both need training and supervision to learn how to appropriately and safely interact with one another. Dogs and children will not automatically get along. If you do not have children, your dog will still need to be socialized with children and learn how to interact with them. If you have children and a dog, you will need to spend time working with both. I highly recommend the book A Kids’ Comprehensive Guide to Speaking Dog! by Niki Tudge. You will discover some things that you probably did not know about dogs while learning how to teach your children about interacting with your dog and any other dog they may meet.
Think carefully about what you teach your dog; intentionally or unintentionally. Un-training a behavior takes a whole lot more time and energy than training a behavior. A trick like “shake” is cute, but think long and hard if you want a dog that will always be trying to get every person they see to shake, even when they have muddy paws.
If there are multiple people that will be interacting with your dog, discuss what cues, visual and verbal, that you will use for specific behaviors so that you are all being consistent. Do not be in a hurry to add a visual (hand signal) or a verbal cue to a behavior. We do not start using a cue until we are confident that the dog understands the behavior in multiple contexts and environments. If you start using the cue too soon, you may need to change it. We will talk about that more in class.
If you have questions that just will not wait until class starts, contact us and make an appointment for a Help Now! session.
The blog posts listed below will all be beneficial for anyone thinking about getting a new dog or for those of you that just added a dog to your family.
The shows listed below are from The Woof Meow Show (www.woofmeowshow.com) and cover a wide variety of topics that will be of interest to anyone with a new puppy. Click on the title to listen to the show.
Common Dog Training Issues
We’re Getting A New Puppy (or Dog)! – part 1 – Once you have found your new furry companion, whether they are a puppy or an older dog, there is much you need to be thinking about before you bring your new friend home. In this show, Don and Kate discuss the things you will need, might need, and don’t need. They finish the show with a discussion of the importance of a well thought out socialization and habituation plan for a puppy. If you have a puppy or dog selected, or are thinking about getting a canine companion, this show will help you prepare for your new dog.
We’re Getting A New Puppy (or Dog)! – part 2 – In this show Kate and Don address the most typical behavior concerns with a new puppy or dog; housetraining, jumping up on people, play biting, and chewing. While this show is no substitute for a well-designed puppy or basic manners class, it will get you pointed in the right direction.
Podcast – How to Choose A Dog Trainer – Kate, and Don discuss what to look for when choosing a dog trainer and dog training class, as well as what to avoid. Dog training and recommended approaches to training a dog have changed dramatically as we have learned more about canines. As a result, we now know that some long-standing methods used to train a dog in the past, are in fact detrimental and can cause serious, long-term harm to your dog. Learn what to look for so that you and your dog have the best experience possible. FIRST AIR DATE: 7JAN17
The benefits of training your dog and 2017 Training Classes at Green Acres – Kate and Don discuss why training a dog is so beneficial to all involved; the dog, the dog’s immediate family, and society in general. They discuss the advantages of working with a certified professional dog trainer so that you have someone that can coach both you and your dog when things are not going as expected. Additionally, they discuss why choosing a trainer that is committed to pain-free, force-free and fear-free training is so important. Lastly, they discuss the training classes that will be offered at Green Acres Kennel Shop in 2017.
Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 1 – Dr. Hanks interviews Don and Kate about their experiences as professional dog trainers. He asks Kate and Don about how training has changed in the past 26 years since Mark began his practice, why training a dog is important, the importance of training for mental enrichment, how breed effects training and compatibility with a family, how human intervention has adversely effected health and behavior, researching dogs before one decides what dog and breed to get, making temperament a key decision when picking a dog, what we typically teach a client and their dog, Green Acres holistic approach to training (husbandry, nutrition, body language, ethology, and training), inadvertent reinforcement of undesirable behaviors, the continuing necessity to refute antiquated and inaccurate myths about canine behavior, the optimal age for starting training, the structure of Green Acres training classes, Green Acres program to help parents find the best pet for them, how family lifestyles have changed and how that affects time for a dog, knowing when to wait before starting a group training class, and how they deal with special needs rescue dogs.
Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 2 – Dr. Hanks asks Kate and Don about: Green Acres holistic approach to training (husbandry, nutrition, body language, ethology, and training) and how we work with families to understand their dog and the importance of having a good foundation of education so people can better understand their dogs, how some students may attend class without their dog either because their dog is sick, in heat or simply because the dog learns better at home, private training options at Green Acres, the critical period of puppy socialization and habituation, why socialization needs to be actively planned and implemented by owners – it doesn’t just happen, what do you do you when want your puppy to be a therapy dog, the difference between therapy dogs, service/assistance dogs, and emotional support dogs, the fake service dog epidemic, can you teach an old dog new tricks, how do you deal with constant barking, and how do you deal with clients that need the dogs behavior changed tomorrow.
Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 3 – Dr. Hanks asks Kate and Don about: dominance, pack hierarchy and alphas and the current science which indicates wolves are a cooperative social species, the benefits of kind leadership as opposed to coercive based leadership, the myth of dogs doing things just to please us, temperament and personality in dogs, the importance of knowing parents because of the genetic role in temperament, “stubborn” dogs versus under-motivated dogs, epigenetics and the possibility of mental health disorders in dogs like autism and PTSD, and temperament as a continuum and nature versus nurture.
Dogs and Babies with Jennifer Shryock from Family Paws Parent Education – Kate and Don interview Jennifer Shryock the founder of Family Paws Pet Education about their innovative programs; Dogs & Storks™ and the Dog and Baby Connection. We’ll discuss why prior planning is so important for the successful integration of a new baby in a home with a dog and what you can do when you have questions.
First Air Date: 17AUG13
Dog Bite Prevention & Doggone Safe with Teresa Lewin of Doggone Safe- part 1 – In part one of this two-part series Kate and Don talk with Teresa Lewin, one of the founders of Doggone Safe, a non-profit dedicated to dog bite prevention through education. In this first show, we discuss the dog bite problem (50% of all children will be taken to the ER for a dog bite by the time they are 12), why these bites usually occur, and what Doggone Safe and their partners like Green Acres Kennel Shop are doing to help prevent them. If you have dogs and children or family with either, or if you work with children, you will want to listen to this show. Checkout the dog bite prevention page on our website for more information – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/dog-bite-prevention
First Air Date: 6APR13
Dog Bite Prevention & Doggone Safe with Teresa Lewin of Doggone Safe- part 2 – In part two of this two-part series Kate and Don talk with Teresa Lewin, one of the founders of Doggone Safe, a non-profit dedicated to dog bite prevention through education. In this second show, we discuss Doggone Safe’s innovative Be A Tree program for children and their Be Doggone Safe at Work program for adults that encounter dogs during work. We’ll discuss how these programs work and their availability through Green Acres Kennel Shop. If you have dogs and children or family with either, or if you work with children, you will want to listen to this show. Checkout the dog bite prevention page on our website for more information – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/dog-bite-prevention
First Air Date: 13APR13
Pet Food Myths – part 1 – In part one of this two-part series, Don and Kate discuss several myths and conceptions pet guardians have about pet food. The fact is that not all pet foods are the same, and the quality varies greatly. Kate and Don reveal these myths and guide the listeners on how to evaluate their pet’s food so that they can provide their pet with optimal nutrition that fits their budget.
First Air Date: 6JUN11
Pet Food Myths – part 2 – In part two of this two-part series, Don and Kate discuss several myths and conceptions pet guardians have about pet food. The fact is that not all pet foods are the same, and the quality varies greatly. Kate and Don reveal these myths and guide the listeners on how to evaluate their pet’s food so that they can provide their pet with optimal nutrition that fits their budget.
First Air Date: 13JUN11
While getting a new pet usually goes very well, occasionally people have a bad experience when purchasing a new pet. This can happen when getting a pet from a pet store, a breeder, and even when getting a pet from a shelter or rescue. In this show, we address consumer’s legal alternatives when things do not go as you wanted.
Dogs have evolved to be excellent opportunistic scavengers. If they smell, see, or hear something that they believe may be helpful to their survival, they will often grab it with their mouths. If we or anyone or anything tries to take away what the dog has acquired, the dog may growl and be willing to fight and bite to keep possession of that item. This behavior is called resource guarding, and while undesirable, it is a normal behavior for a dog. The video above illustrates a dog guarding a bone.
This article is meant to teach you what to do when this behavior occurs and how to prevent this behavior from happening in the future. The safety of you, others in your household, the community at large, and your dog must ALWAYS be your first concern. Dogs that bite to keep something that they have may be classified as dangerous dogs.
If you have not had this problem with your dog, you will still benefit from learning how to prevent the behavior. The best place to get that advice is from a certified professional dog trainer or certified dog behavior consultant. Because the potential for getting bitten is a real possibility when a dog guards a resource, I recommend that you see the advice of a professional. In my 20+ years of experience working with people and their dogs, I do not believe that dealing with this type of behavior can be learned from the internet, a book, or a video.
What to do when your dog steals and protects something
If your dog has something they are not supposed to have, do NOT:
get mad at your dog,
or punish your dog.
None of those actions will be helpful. Any type of punishment is very likely to make your dog even more defensive and will substantially increase the odds of your being bitten. Dog bites are very damaging to the relationship we have with our dog. Both you and the dog will lose trust in one another, and it may take weeks and months for this trust to be restored, if at all.
If your dog has something they are not supposed to have, calmly assess the situation. Dogs steal things. I find that these items tend to fall into one of the following three categories:
things that may cause your dog harm if they ingest them, such as a bottle of medicine, a sock, or pair of nylons,
things that could harm your dog and/or cause you great expense such as a cell phone, or a remote control, and
something we would rather our dog not have, but will not cause them any harm. The latter could be a napkin or a paper towel.
In the first two cases, you want to get the items back from your dog as easily as possible without you or the dog becoming injured or traumatized. The best way to do this is to offer a trade with a high-value piece of food such as a piece of deli meat or cheese. Yes, technically, this is rewarding a behavior you do not want; however, it is the easiest way to retrieve the object without you getting bitten.
If the dog has something in category three and you do not feel that you can safely get it away from the dog by trading them for something better, I would just let them keep what they have. Consuming a napkin or paper towel will typically not be harmful.
After you have possession of the object, you should start planning on how to prevent this type of behavior in the future.
Signs of guarding behavior include those shown in the video above, as well as:
Freezing and staring at you while maintaining possession of the object,
consuming the object as quickly as possible,
running away with the object and trying to hide,
snapping and biting at the air,
and biting you if you get too close. This may either be an inhibited bite, with little or no injury or a bite that punctures the skin.
Because resource guarding is a behavior that can result in a dog bite, and because a dog bite can cause irreparable damage to both you and the dog, I recommend that you meet with a reward-based certified professional dog trainer or certified dog behavior consultant as soon as possible. You are unlikely to resolve this problem on your own. In my 20+ years of experience working with people and their dogs, I do not believe that dealing with this type of behavior can be learned from the internet, a book, or a video.
Most dogs have strong instincts to survive and thus may growl to protect resources that they believe are essential to their continued existence. Canine behavior specialists and dog trainers typically describe this behavior as resource guarding. Put another way; it is the dog’s fear of losing something that the dog believes is essential to life. The item most frequently guarded is food, but resources can also include; toys, spaces, trash, inanimate objects, particular people, basically anything the dog believes is worth protecting because of the value it offers to them; sustenance, comfort, attention, and affection. It is important for us to understand that the dog decides the value of something, not us. We may see an object as being totally without value to our dog, but if they believe it has value, they may choose to protect it.
Resource guarding has nothing to do with your dog trying to dominate you. In fact, science tells us that dominance has little or nothing to do with our relationship with our dogs. Trying to intimidate a dog into doing what we want is more likely to cause our dog to distrust us and is less likely to get the dog to work for us than reward based training.
The first thing that a qualified dog training professional will discuss is the importance of managing the dog’s environment to prevent resource guarding from occurring. That means that you need to make sure that things your dog may want to steal are kept someplace where the dog cannot get to them. Socks and shoes are put away in a room that the dog cannot access, or better yet in a dresser. Trash is kept in a container in a closet or pantry or a trash can that the dog cannot open. If your dog always guards a specific treat like a rawhide, then the trainer may recommend that you no longer give your dog this type of treat. Managing the dog’s environment is about us using our more powerful human brains to outsmart the dog.
If your dog is guarding their food at meal time, a professional will advise you to, first of all, leave your dog alone while they are eating. How would you like it if someone kept stealing your food off your plate while you were eating? While we want a dog to be safe when eating in our home, the best way to do that is to teach them good things happen when we are near them while they eat. A trainer can show you how to do that safely.
Lastly, a trainer will teach you how to train your dog to respond to a behavior like “Give” and “Leave It.” We discuss both of these behaviors in our Basic Manners class. “Give” is used when we want the dog to relinquish something they have in their mouths and “Leave It” is used when we want the dog to choose to focus on us, rather than trying to get something they find tempting. Keep in mind that your dog will not learn either of these behaviors quickly. They will take more time and effort on your part than teaching a behavior like “Sit”, because in the case of “Give” or “Leave It” we are asking the dog to do something that is against their instincts. A dog may find it unnatural to relinquish a sandwich they scarfed off the table, just like many of us find it difficult to drive past a donut shop.
In this post on The Academy for Dog Trainers blog, Dr. Zazie Todd discusses the benefits of reward-based dog training. Key points addressed are: aversive methods are not more effective, studies suggest reward-based methods might work better, aversive techniques have risks such as an increase in fear and aggression, fear takes a lot of work and time to resolve and does not always resolve, dogs taught with negative reinforcement are less likely to look at their owner, and reward-based training has fewer risks and is better for the dogs overall welfare.
We do not spend lots of time discussing recall in our Puppy Headstart class; there simply is not enough time in the four weeks we have. However, it is a critical behavior, and one most new puppy parents want to start teaching their puppy. A puppy usually stays pretty close to its new family the first few weeks, making it is easy to get a false sense of security, believing that your puppy has already mastered the recall behavior and will instantly come back to you in any situation. Based on twenty five plus years as a professional dog trainer, I can tell you that this is extremely unlikely.
It is not my intention to scare you but to be honest with you. Your puppy will reach a point where they will be confident and ready to leave your side without warning. This urge to bolt often happens between twelve and sixteen weeks of age, roughly equivalent to humans becoming teenagers. The recall that you thought was perfect will no longer work. That is why I recommend that dogs be secured in fenced areas when they are off leash. I have had too many phone calls from students telling me that they wished they would have followed my advice because their puppy bolted into the road in front of a car and was seriously injured or killed.
Below I describe how you can start building a reliable recall with a game called puppy ping pong. This is something that you can start doing immediately. However, pleased understand that having a recall that can save your dog’s life takes lots of practice. In my experience, very few dogs are at that point before they are twelve to eighteen months of age. Some dogs, despite working with incredible trainers, never reach the point where they can be safe off leash in non-fenced areas.
OBJECTIVE: To teach your dog to enthusiastically and immediately come to you in any circumstance, when given a single visual or verbal cue. Teaching your dog the Attention/Look cue and Collar Control and Restraint first will make teaching recall easier.
I believe “Come” is the most crucial cue your puppy/dog needs to know. It means, “Come to me happily without any hesitation or wandering.” It is a behavior which may save your dog’s life. It can take many months of training and thousands of repetitions before you will have a dog that reliably comes every time you ask for the behavior. Even if you think your three-month-old puppy knows to come when called, do not be surprised as this changes when the dog becomes older and begins to explore the world. This is often when a puppy takes off and gets killed when they are hit by a car. In my 25+ years training dogs, I heard that story far too often, so if it scares you, I am sorry, but if it keeps you from making that mistake, I have accomplished my goal.
Remember, often when your dog to instantaneously stop what they are doing and return to you, they are engaged in something extremely enticing such as eating a tasty piece of deer poop or chasing a squirrel. To be successful, you need to have a significant history of offering the dog something equally and preferably better than the object that has your dog’s attention. Training a reliable recall takes time, patience, and many repetitions.
NEVER scold or punish your dog after he has come to you, even if it seems like he took forever. Unless you are excited, happy, and pleased that your dog had returned to your presence and allowed you to catch me, your dog will think even longer before coming the next time. Your recall cue MUST be the most positive word that your dog hears and should never be associated with anything negative. (Remember, think like a dog. Coming to you must always be safe and rewarding from your dog’s point of view. For example, asking your dog to come when they are playing outside and then putting him in his kennel or calling your dog to you and then trimming their nails will be NOT be considered to be rewarding for most dogs. Call them in, give them a treat, play with them for a little bit, then put your dog in their kennel, or trim their nails.
ALWAYS reward and praise your dog for coming to you, even if you did not ask them to come. Remember, the best reward for most dogs is going to be a high-value treat, something with is mostly meat. Expecting your dog to be excited about getting a dog biscuit would be like you offering me a box of soda crackers for helping you move to which I would respond; “I’m sorry I’m busy all weekend.”
While training the recall, do NOT use the verbal cue you intend to use for the recall; most people choose the word “Come,” unless you are 100% sure that your dog will come to you. Most people start using verbal cues before the dog is ready. Some dogs have heard the word “come” so many times while doing everything but running towards you that to them, it means “continue doing what you are doing.” Until your dog has been trained reliably to a recall cue, go and get your dog when required and reward him for being “captured.”
ALWAYS use a pleasant tone of voice when asking your dog to come. If you sound angry, your dog will perceive you as being a threat and not safe and is not going to want to come to you. Many times I hear people start with a very friendly “COME” and then when the dog does not move towards them, the person follows it up with a harsher sounding “COME.” Would that make you more likely to move towards someone who is now angry with you? When you go from happy to angry you have made two mistakes; you have not adequately trained your dog to come on the first cue, and you allowed yourself to become frustrated with your dog for your error, which decreases the probability of the desired behavior. Be enthusiastic and happy and use your voice to reflect that attitude. No deep booming voices, high-pitched squeals work much better (Guys, man-up, you can do this!) and do not keep repeating the same annoying and nagging phrase over and over (e.g., “Come Sparky, come on, come, Sparky, Sparky, come”).
ALWAYS use “dog-friendly” body language when asking your dog to come. Standing or kneeling with your arms open and outstretched and leaning back is very inviting for most dogs. Even the slightest lean forward by you can be seen as confrontational by your dog. Sometimes running a few steps towards your dog then immediately turning around and running away is all you need to do!
Even after your dog has been trained to respond to a verbal cue for recall, ALWAYS make sure you have your dog’s attention before telling them to come
Only say your verbal cue once and only after you have your dog’s attention. Saying it several times only teaches your dog that your request is optional, and the verbal cue you are using for recall becomes irrelevant.
If after training to your dog to 99% reliability and they do not come, go and get him, reward him with a treat! Moreover, praise him! If you yell at him, you have just taught him that “getting caught” results in punishment. Also, understand that you need to do some more training.
Do not overuse the cue “come.” Allow this word to remain meaningful. For example; do not use your recall cue when trying to get your dog closer to you while working on teaching heel/walking politely. If my dog is out in the backyard enjoying herself while rolling in the grass, I am going get off my lazy butt, go over to her, kneel and play with her, and get her to follow me inside. If we are honest with ourselves, we all know that we could use the extra steps in our daily routine and that the scenario I have outlined is not one where we need an instantaneous response.
Get your dog used to being handled by their collar when they come to you (see Collar Control & Restraint). Your dog’s collar is usually the only thing you will be able to use to restrain your dog. Dogs that are not given positive reinforcement for allowing us to handle them by their collars often become collar shy.
Do not always tell your dog to come after he has been placed on a stay. You do not want your dog to lose his stay position because he is anticipating your next cue.
What If My Dog Does Not Come When Called?
No matter how well you train your dog, there may be some times when your dog does not come. If this happens, there are two things you can do:
If the dog is running away
Throw your arms up, scream, and run away from your dog. Most of the time, the dog will come quickly after you. When your dog arrives, get control of him, praise him lavishly and give him a jackpot of treats. Use this experiences as a wake-up call and recognize you need to do more training.
If the dog is not coming to you
Crouch or lie down on the ground and start whispering to the ground as if you have just found something incredibly wonderful. Your dog will probably come over to investigate. When he does, gently place your hand on your dog’s collar, praise him lavishly and give him a handful of treats. Use this experiences as a wake-up call and recognize they you need to do more training.
Training Exercises to Build A Strong Recall
Start with two or more people at opposite ends of a long hall or room or with a group of people sitting in a circle. Each needs a clicker and some treats. We recommend you always use a high-value treat, such as some freeze-dried meat or cheese which you use exclusively for training the recall.
The first person crouches or kneels, leans back, and says the dog’s name.
NOTE: Dogs respond positively to reduced body posture, which is why we crouch or kneel. Do NOT bend over at the waist, as this as many dogs will feel threatened when you are in this position.
Get the dog’s attention by clapping your hands while enthusiastically making high-pitched squeaky noises, whatever is necessary to get your dog to come and investigate. If you need to, run up to the dog quickly, then quickly run backward, praising your dog as your dog comes towards you.
As the dog starts coming towards you, excitedly praise him l “Good Dog!” “Good Job!” Many people make the mistake of waiting to praise the dog until he has arrived. We want to reward the actual behavior of coming towards you.
When the dog is in front of you, put your fingers on the dog’s collar below their head (see Collar Control & Restraint) and click and treat with a high-value reward, such as noted above. It is imperative that you gently grasp the collar, so your dog associates this as being a good thing. The first few times he comes, praise him for a good 15 seconds, making a big deal about how wonderful he was to come to you.
Repeat the above steps, having the other person(s) call the dog.
When the dog starts to automatically return to the other person after the click and treat, you are ready to play this game in another location.
As the dog gets proficient at this, fade the hand clapping and noises.
When the dog is consistently coming, you are ready to play the next game, which we will teach you in Basic Manners.
In my experience, no piece of equipment, leash, collar or harness will cause a dog to happily and consistently walk on a loose leash unless the dog is also trained to walk politely.
Training a dog to walk on a loose leash takes patience and time. Unlike, sit or down, walking side-by-side another living being is not a normal behavior for a dog. Dogs sit and down all the time without even being asked, but when was the last time you saw a group of dogs walking side-by-side? It does not happen.
I have found that teaching someone to train their dog to heel or walk on a loose leash is best accomplished with a professional, reward-based dog trainer demonstrating how to teach and reward the behavior and then coaching the student as the student trains their dog. Technique and attention to detail matters when teaching a dog to heel. It is not something most people master in one lesson but is critical.
As noted above, no tool, on its own, is going to teach a dog to walk on a loose leash. However, the following teaching aids are the ones that will be very helpful in teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash.
A regular 6-foot leash and a flat collar or properly fitted front-connect harness.
A treat bag filled with yummy treats. Wear it on the side where you want the dog.
A clicker or another way to mark the behavior that you want.
A motivated, happy and encouraging person at the other end of your dog’s
We NEVER recommend the use of any aversive such as a prong, choke, or shock collar for training or the management of a pet. These tools can cause significant physical injuries and emotional pain to a pet. They can severely damage the bond and trust between handler and dog and also have the potential to cause severe behavior problems such as aggression. Our philosophy is consistent with the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) and the Pet Professional Guild (PPG).
I never recommend the use of any retractable leash if your goal is to teach your dog not to pull when walking. Retractable leashes work by keeping constant tension on the leash and thus are rewarding your dog for keeping the leash tight with every single step your dog takes. Retractable leashes also allow your dog to walk several feet in front of you, which if you want the dog at your side is counter-productive. After your dog has learned to walk loosely on a 6-feet leash, you may wish to then train them to walk on a longer leash. When in town or areas with large numbers of people, I walk my dog on a 6-foot leash; however, if we are out on a trail, away from most other people I routinely use a 15-foot leash so that my dog can explore. My dog has also been trained on this leash, and when I cue her to return to my side, she does.
When training, it is important to be able to instantly communicate with your dog to let them know the precise moment in time that they are in the exact position you want. The clicker excels at this. However, if you are not experienced with clicker training (operant conditioning), I would recommend working with a professional trainer that is, because if you click at the wrong time, or inappropriately, you may confuse your dog.
A click without a reward is the equivalent to us receiving the envelope our paycheck comes in and finding it empty. A click is a sacred promise of a reward, and the best reward for the vast majority of dogs is a treat. When teaching your dog to walk nicely by your side, you need to quickly deliver the treat in the precise position where you want the dog to be, typically the side of your leg. If you give the dog the treat in front of you, you are encouraging the dog to move out of the desired position and to cross in front of you, an accident waiting to happen. Neither you nor your dog will be happy if you trip over them and end up kissing the sidewalk.
Maintaining Focus Matters
Keep lessons short, 5 minutes maximum.
It is more productive to do three 5 minute lessons than one 15 minute lesson.
Remember, every time the dog is on a leash they are learning to walk politely or to pull and lunge. What they learn is up to you.
While you may feel that you need to take your dog for a 30-minute or 15-minute walk, doing so is counterproductive if they are pulling on their leash at any time during the walk. Until you have trained your dog to walk on a loose leash, limit your walks to 5 minutes, the same amount of time we would recommend for any training session. If you are concerned about exercise for your dog, play fetch with them in a fenced area.
Every step you take with the leash tight is rewarding the dog for that behavior because they get one step closer to what they want. Rewarding the behavior you do not want, could dramatically increase the amount of time it takes your dog to learn the behavior you do want.
If you are having trouble stopping when the leash goes tight, consider getting a properly fitted front-connect harness. These harnesses can be very helpful when fitted and used properly.
Start with stationary attention exercises (Attention/Look Behavior).
I consider the heel behavior to be an extension of what we teach as an Attention behavior. Attention is all about teaching the dog to make and maintain eye contact with us. Heel or walking politely is essentially attention while in motion. The easiest way to get your dog to focus on you while walking is first to train them to have impeccable focus while you are stationary.
Reward your dog with treats frequently when you start teaching walking politely, don’t be stingy.
The timing of the treat is critical.
The location where the treat is delivered is critical.
When I start teaching walking politely, I treat for every step or every two steps. Being stingy with treats will not be helpful. As I noted above the timing of the click and treat and where the treat is delivered are crucial. That is why I recommend that you work with a professional dog trainer that can coach you on timing and treat delivery.
You must be more interesting than the environment
It can be tough to be more interesting when outdoors, so start by practicing inside.
This is a time to talk to your dog as a means to keep them focused on you.
Change your pace and directions frequently and erratically, so the dog needs to focus on you.
Working off-leash inside or in a fenced area outside is a good way to practice.
Training your dog to walk on a loose leash is all about teaching them to be aware of their position in relationship to you when walking and for you to be able to immediately get their attention and focus in very distracting environments.
There are far more distractions outdoors than there are indoors, so I recommend that you practice and master this behavior inside, before working on it outdoors.
If you are silent when walking, your dog will quickly find something more interesting than you, and you will have lost their attention. When teaching your dog to walk politely, you will need to talk to your dog. However, be careful about saying the same thing over and over again. If you keep saying their name (Sparky, Sparky, Sparky) ad infinitum, they will tune you out, just as you have probably tuned out someone who constantly nags you with the same phrase.
When I first teach a dog to walk by my side, I use a higher-pitched voice (guys you can do this!) and tell my dog stories or talk to them about my day. They are not listening to the words, but by chattering away and frequently rewarding them, I have become more or at least as equally compelling as the distractions.
Walking around the block or in a straight line has very few learning opportunities and if you walk the same route every time the dog quickly learns that they do not need to focus on you. They know where you are going. For this reason, when you start to teach this behavior I recommend that you walk erratically and unpredictably. Change directions often, so the dog is thinking “Whoa, I have no idea where they are going, I better pay attention!” You should be walking in a manner that would result in your being pulled over by the police if you were driving.
When you start practicing this outdoors, you do not need to leave your yard. Just practice in the yard and driveway. Start somewhere the dog is familiar with as there will be fewer distractions. Your neighbors may think you have lost it when they see you chattering at your dog and are not able to walk a straight line, but who cares!
I also encourage people to practice the heel behavior with the dog off leash, but ONLY if they have an appropriate space where they can do so. An appropriate area is one where the dog is safely contained and cannot place themselves in danger. Fenced yards work great! If you do not have a fenced yard but are a regular client of Green Acres Kennel Shop, you can use our training field to work with your dog off leash. However, make it easy on yourself and start in one of the two small yards.
So why practice heel with the dog off leash? It is much harder to maintain your dog in position and focused on you when the dog has the freedom to move away. The leash is a crutch for both the dog and us. When on a leash your dog does not need to look at you to be aware of where you are, and you do not need to work as hard to keep them close. By practicing this behavior with the dog off leash, you are both going to need to work harder. In my 21 plus years of teaching people how to train their dog to walk politely, I have observed a consistent pattern in those that are not successful; they are not putting enough energy into teaching this behavior. If you are doing this correctly, after five minutes you and your dog will be ready for a nice break.
Consistency Matters When Walking
All family members need to follow the same rules and protocol.
Pick a side and stick to it.
If the dog is on leash it is learning, and if the dog is on leash you are training – ALWAYS
If the leash gets tight, stop until the leash is loose – ALWAYS
If the dog is in the position you want and paying attention to you, reward them. – ALWAYS
If multiple members of the family walk the dog you ALL need to follow the same rules ALL of the time. You need to pick a side, left or right, and stick with it. Imagine if you were being taught to drive by two people and one person taught you to drive on the left side of the road, and the next day another person resumed the lesson by teaching you to drive on the right side of the road. Would you be confused? Very likely. We need to make it easy for our dog and stick with a side. After your dog has mastered walking on one side, then you can also teach them to walk on the other side.
It only takes one person who frequently allows the dog to pull on the leash to make training the dog take longer and even possibly to cause you to be unsuccessful. If you are connected to the dog by a leash, and you are in motion, your dog will be learning, and you should be training. If the leash gets tight, stop so that you do not reward the dog for forward motion. When the dog is back in the desired position at your side and is focused on you, reward them! While you do not need to reward your dog every step, for the rest of their life, you should be ready to reward whenever you walk your dog in a new environment or if it has been several weeks since you practiced walking politely.
Some Training Tips
If the dog starts to pull ahead;
Call their name or ask them to LOOK (Attention Behavior) and the instant they look back at you click and when they are in the position you want them to be, treat.
If you want them on your LEFT, turn 180 degrees to the RIGHT
Click the instant they are in the heel position and then treat in that position
If you want them on your RIGHT, turn 180 degrees to the LEFT
Click the instant they are in the heel position and then treat in that position
Walks Need to Be Fun for Both of You
If you like to walk for pleasure, and your dog is not trained, take your walk and just leave the dog at home. It is not necessary to combine your pleasure walks with the dogs training walk especially if it is frustrating for you. Your dog will very likely feed off of your frustration and become anxious or frustrated themselves. If either of your is frustrated, very little teaching or learning will occur
If you invest the time and energy in training your dog to walk politely on a leash, you will eventually walk many miles together, enjoying one another’s company. Just remember, make the walk pleasurable for your dog and give them opportunities to stop, sniff and explore because that is what your dog enjoys about your journeys together. If you do not have the time to do the latter, leave the dog home. However, make sure to schedule a time when you can take your dog for a walk that they will enjoy.
Dog training has changed dramatically in the past 30 years. While the use of aversive techniques such as choke and prong collar corrections, shock collars, alpha wolf rollovers, dominance downs, and other methods based on positive punishment and negative reinforcement were the predominant form of dog training many years ago, these methods are now considered to be both unnecessary but also counter-productive and detrimental. Many consider them to be inhumane. Dog training should be fun and that means it is pain-free, force-free, and fear-free. Dog training should be fun for both you and your dog.
Aversives and the use of force cause fear and pain, which can be physical or emotional in nature. That in turn, impairs our dog’s ability to learn, damages the bond and trust between our dog and us, and has been found to cause behavioral problems such as aggression, anxiety, and extreme stress.
The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), and the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) recommend that aversives NEVER be used.
In their Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines the AAHA said this about aversives:
“This Task Force opposes training methods that use aversive techniques. Aversive training has been associated with detrimental effects on the human–animal bond, problem solving ability, and the physical and behavioral health of the patient. It causes problem behaviors in normal animals and hastens progression of behavioral disorders in distressed animals. Aversive techniques are especially injurious to fearful and aggressive patients and often suppress signals of impending aggression, rendering any aggressive dog more dangerous.
Aversive techniques include prong (pinch) or choke collars, cattle prods, alpha rolls, dominance downs, electronic shock collars, lunge whips, starving or withholding food, entrapment, and beating. None of those tools and methods should be used to either teach or alter behavior.” [Emphasis added]
A “therapy dog” is someone’s pet that is highly trained, can be easily controlled around other dogs, is very social and enjoys interacting with all ages and types of people and has been tested and certified through a recognized therapy dog organization. Typically the dog is certified with one handler, usually the dog’s owner, as a therapy dog/handler team. Once certified these teams, if invited, may visit hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, and other places for the purpose of interacting with residents of those facilities providing they maintain their certification. Unlike a service/assistance dog, a therapy dog and their handler have no special rights of access as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act. You can find information on the legal definition of a service/assistance dog at http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm.
There are several therapy dog registries. Therapy Dogs International (http://www.tdi-dog.org ), PetPartners, formerly The Delta Society, (http://www.petpartners.org/ ) and Therapy Dogs Incorporated (https://www.therapydogs.com/) are three of the more well-known registries that have credentialed dogs in Maine. Each registry has its own test criteria, rules, evaluators and associated fees. Typically a dog/handler team may only be registered by one registry, and evaluators usually are only certified by one registry. The best place to get current information on each registry’s requirements is at their respective websites.
Does a therapy dog need to pass a test to be certified?
Reputable therapy dog registries will require a dog and handler team to pass a test before their being certified. This test is necessary to protect the public, the people, the facility the dog may visit and ultimately the therapy dog/handler team. The fees paid to therapy dog registries are used in part to pay for liability insurance that protects all parties in case of an accident such as a dog bite. There are some very disreputable websites where you can register your therapy dog and get a certificate without requiring a test. These “registries” typically do not include any insurance should an accident occur. The reality is that if you and your dog are not certified by a reputable organization, you could be financially liable for any and all damages and could possibly be subject to criminal charges should something go awry during a visit.
What are the test requirements to be a therapy dog?
The test criteria for most registries are usually a superset of the American Kennel Clubs (AKC) Canine Good Citizen Test.
The following assessment is based on requirements of Therapy Dogs International.
Registries typically require that the dog be at least one year of age, is current on all vaccinations, have a veterinary health certificate and is licensed by the state before they are eligible to be tested. In my experience, most dogs are not mature enough or sufficiently trained so that they can pass the test before 18 to 24 months of age.
A dog must be able to sit, down and stay reliably when given a single visual or verbal cue. Other basic obedience behaviors involve being able to walk with their handler on a loose leash, to come when called, and to leave things when asked to leave things. Additionally, dogs should be non-reactive to any person or dog and only minimally reactive to audible and visual stimuli. When your dog is on your side, they should not move towards another dog or a person unless they have been released to do so. A dog that lunges or barks at a person or another dog during a test would be considered “not ready.” A dog must also allow a stranger to examine their paws, their eyes and to brush them without excessive wiggling and without growling or biting. A dog that paws at or mouths people would also be deemed “not ready.”
Based on my experience as an evaluator for Therapy Dogs International, the following parts of the test are the ones that are usually the most difficult for a handler and their dog:
Reaction to Another Dog – This test demonstrates that the dog can remain under control around other dogs. Two handlers and their dogs approach each other from a distance of about 10 yards, stop, shake hands and exchange pleasantries, and continue on for about 5 yards. The dog should not show any negative reaction or pull towards the other dog. The handler should not allow the dog to visit with the demo dog. Negative reaction means a dog showing signs of disobedience, aggression or avoidance (shyness). Having an excellent attention behavior and an automatic sit can be very helpful for passing this part of the evaluation.
Reactions to Distractions (Leave-It) – This test is in two phases. In phase one a stranger will offer the dog a treat. The dog must ignore the food. In phase 2, the handler, with the dog on a loose leash, walks past food on the ground (placed within a distance of three feet) and, upon command, the dog should ignore the food. If the handler spots the food, a command of leave it can be given and the dog is not permitted to pick up the food. If the handler does not see the food and consequently does not give a command, he or she is not scouting adequately. If the dog gets the food, they fail the test. As scavengers, dogs have a natural instinct to check out food. An excellent attention or leave-it behavior will help a dog pass this test.
Supervised Separation – This test demonstrates that a dog can be left with another person, typically a stranger, and will maintain its training and good manners. The owner will go out of site for three minutes. The dog does not have to stay in position but should not bark, whine, or pull away from the person holding the leash. Dogs need to be well socialized and comfortable around all types of people, including strangers, to pass this part of the test. This is not so much a training issue as one of helping your dog learn to cope emotionally with being left with someone new in your absence. Lots of gradual practice is essential to passing this part of the test.
Visiting with a Patient – The TDI Certified Evaluator will test the willingness of each dog to visit a person and ascertain that the dog can be made readily accessible for petting (i.e. small dogs can be placed on a person’s lap or can be held, medium and larger dogs can sit on a chair or stand close to the patient to be easily reached.). Shyness, aggressiveness, jumping up, and not wanting to visit are reasons for automatic failure. The evaluator should be looking for a dog that willing approaches and obviously wants to interact in a friendly manner yet, is not rambunctious. If a dog does not have an outgoing personality and is not interested in meeting people they may be able to pass the test but may not enjoy doing therapy work; asking such a dog to be part of a therapy dog/handler team is unfair. Dogs that have been trained to shake or do other things with their paws often fail this part of the test because they initiate contact with their paws without being cued to do so. For a patient taking blood thinning medicine in a nursing home or hospital, the risk of a scratch from a nail can be very serious. Thus all pawing behavior should be discouraged.
Walking on a Loose Leash – Your dog’s ability to be under control while on a leash is tested throughout various parts of the TDI test. The dog must be wearing either a flat buckle or snap-in collar (non-corrective) or a harness (non-corrective). Pulling on the leash, jumping up, shyness, not wanting to visit, showing aggressiveness, not walking on a loose leash are all automatic failures. There must always be slack in the leash.
How can I get my dog prepared to pass the test?
If you have a young puppy and your hope is to someday become a therapy dog and handler team, the most critical thing you can do is to socialize, not overwhelm, your puppy in a positive manner before they are 16 weeks of age. Getting them accustomed to crutches, wheelchairs, different noises and flooring is crucial. Always keep in mind, however, that even if you do everything right, this does not necessarily mean that your dog will be cut out to be a therapy dog.
From a training perspective you are not required to take any classes or even to train your dog in order to take a therapy dog test; however, there is no question that enrolling yourself and your dog in reward-based training classes is very beneficial. It is rare that a dog and handler team that do not take formal training class will pass an evaluation. Typically a person would complete several dog training classes before they and their dog would be ready to take the test. For example, if you are starting with a young puppy, the optimal choice would be to go through Puppy Headstart, Basic Manners, and all upper-level classes, maybe more than once. A class taught by someone who is familiar with the test is one of the best ways to prepare.
What happens if my dog and I do not pass the test?
If you and your dog take the test and you are not ready, you can usually take the test again. Most evaluators will suggest what you need to work on, although they do not necessarily offer advice on how to train your dog to do better. Also, if an evaluator has concerns about your dog’s basic temperament, they may suggest other activities instead of therapy work. The fact is, not all dogs are suitable for being therapy dogs; that does not mean they are not great dogs.
What happens after my dog and I pass the test?
Once a dog and handler have passed a test, they must then register with the therapy dog registry before they are considered certified. This typically involves submitting current veterinary records along with your application. One of the main benefits of registering, which is typically done annually and involves a fee, is the liability insurance that comes with the registration. If your dog were to hurt someone while working as a therapy dog, you would typically have some coverage. If your dog is not appropriately registered, you may be personally financially and legally liable for your dog’s behavior and subsequent actions. Institutions should require that you provide proof of registration and proof of insurance before allowing you and your dog to visit with people at the facility. Their failure to do so does not necessarily remove or limit your liability.
On a personal note, I always advise people that some dogs that can pass the test may not enjoy doing therapy work. Your first responsibility is to your dog, not to the people you visit. If your dog does not enjoy therapy dog work or later shows signs that they no longer enjoy the work, it is time to stop. Shed, one of our dogs, was certified with my wife, Paula, as her handler. Paula took Shed on one visit, and although she was a real sweetheart, she clearly did not enjoy meeting and interacting with strangers. She retired after one visit. My dog Tikken and I did therapy work for a few years, but then one day she hesitated as we were entering one of the nursing homes we visited. When she did that I second time I knew she was ready to retire and I allowed her to do so.
So after we are registered, how do we get started doing therapy work?
If you wish to visit healthcare facilities as a therapy dog/handler team, you should contact the facility ahead of time rather than just showing up with your dog. Typically it would be the activities director or volunteer director you will need to connect with to schedule your visits. Most facilities will need to see proof that you and your dog are certified and have insurance. They may also require that you go through their volunteer training program due to laws covering patient privacy and confidentiality.
Most registries require that you reregister and pay an annual fee to keep your certification and insurance current. Some may also require that you take the test again.
When is a therapy dog/handler team considered to be working?
Typically, a dog/therapy team is usually only considered to be working as a therapy team when; 1) they are with the certified handler, 2) they are volunteering their time, and 3) they are on a leash connected to the handler. If your spouse or partner is certified with your dog and you are not, the dog would not be considered to be a therapy dog when working with you. Most registries do not cover your dog when they are at your home or if you have your dog at your place of employment. If you are a mental health professional and want to use a therapy dog as part of your practice, you should check with your employer and your personal insurance provider to make sure you have adequate insurance coverage. Likewise, if your dog were to bite someone in your home, it is doubtful that you would be covered by the registries liability insurance. Lastly, if you are not holding the leash and something happens, you may not be covered by the registries insurance.
What if I do not have a dog but want to get one so we can become a therapy dog/handler team?
Not every dog is going to be able to pass the test to become the canine half of a therapy dog/handler team, so selecting the right dog will be very important in increasing the odds that your dog will pass. I strongly encourage you to work with a certified professional dog trainer that is familiar with the test criteria who can offer objective advice. In my opinion, that means that they have absolutely no financial interest in your purchasing a dog or a puppy. Any organization or individual that is trying to sell you a dog may not always be as objective as possible about a dog’s potential for becoming a therapy dog. While puppy temperament tests have their place, there is no research that supports that they are predictive of a dog’s future suitability for therapy work. Nor does getting a puppy whose parents were therapy dogs guarantee that the puppy will pass a test at a future date. No one can guarantee that a dog will be suitable for therapy dog work.
Research studies have demonstrated that if either parent is shy or timid, the puppies will be timid. Shyness or timidity is very likely to make a dog unsuitable for therapy dog work. Either the dog will find the work very stressful or will not be able to pass the test. Another major factor in a dog’s suitability will be their environment and training that occurs during their critical socialization period which occurs between eight and sixteen weeks of age. A certified professional dog trainer can be of great assistance in helping you develop a socialization and habituation plan for this period that optimizes a puppy’s odds of being good therapy dog material.
I believe that you will have the best probability of passing the test by getting a puppy that you socialize and train yourself with therapy work in mind. A dog’s temperament, a key factor in their suitability for therapy dog work, is determined in part by genetics. When choosing a puppy, you will want to meet the parents so you can assess their temperament. If you do not have experience in this area, you would be advised to work with a certified professional dog trainer or certified dog behavior consultant who has experience in this area. They will not be able to guarantee that a puppy will pass a future therapy test, but they may be able to indicate that a puppy would be unlikely to pass a test.