When Pet Therapy Goes Wrong: Why Temperament Trumps Training

Daisy getting ready for a therapy visit.

Daisy getting ready for a therapy visit.

I have been doing pet therapy with my labradoodle, Daisy, for going on two years now. It was always a dream of mine to do pet therapy, and I looked for months for the right dog. I adopted Daisy from a family who could no longer care for her, and I knew almost instantly she was the one. She is the most calm, well-balanced dog I've ever known. One of the most common questions I get asked about therapy dogs is what type of training the dogs need. My response is always, "temperament trumps training." And at our last visit, I was reminded why this is the case.

This particular visit took place at a facility that helps disabled children integrate into their families, schools, and communities through play. It is an incredible place, and Daisy and I both love it there. One of our visitors was a young boy and his dad. He enjoyed petting Daisy and was particularly curious about her tail. I always keep a close eye on any interactions and watch Daisy's body language carefully, but she was completely at ease. Without warning, the boy broke out of his dad's grasp and ran behind Daisy. Before I could make sense of what was happening, he lifted up his leg and stomped as hard as he could on her tail.

I'm convinced that if this had happened to just about any other dog, the outcome would have been disastrous. Daisy is well-trained and knows all kinds of basic cues, but no amount of compliance training can overrule a dog's safety and survival instincts. When I chose Daisy, it was because I knew that she wasn't phased by anything--loud noises, sudden movements, you name it. She's cool as a cucumber. What makes her a good therapy dog isn't the amount of training she has--it's her temperament.

There are a lot of dogs who tolerate pet therapy but don't enjoy it. You can see subtle signs that they're stressed out throughout the visit. While those dogs might be fine 99% of the time, put them in a situation like Daisy and I were in and you're asking for a nip or a bite. If you're considering getting your dog certified, I highly suggest taking some time to evaluate whether it's something your dog will enjoy or if they will only tolerate it. The best therapy dogs are well-balanced, highly social, and not easily spooked or startled. The best therapy dog isn't necessarily the most well-trained.

So what was Daisy's reaction to getting her tail unexpectedly stomped on? She yelped and whipped around, and then proceeded to walk up to the boy and lick his face. I'm thankful for that dog every day.

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Positively Expert: Alex Andes

Alex Andes is the owner and head trainer of Peach on a Leash Dog Training & Behavior Services in Atlanta, GA.


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