I just got a puppy and we want to become a therapy animal team. Where do I start?

At Pet Partners, this is a question we hear all the time. We’ve put together a few suggestions for aspiring therapy dog teams that are grounded in our philosophy of YAYABA™ or You Are Your Animal’s Best Advocate.

Begin Socialization

Puppies need a variety of experiences, from car rides to visiting with all kinds of people to going to as many settings as you can imagine. This might include activities like taking your puppy to a public park, to a garden center and to the pet store. Allow them to meet people of different ages and ethnicities as well as individuals wearing uniforms, hats, and glasses.

Each new experience you share with your puppy should be pleasant and positive. As you are exposing your puppy to new people and places, be prepared and expect the unexpected because one negative experience can have a life-long impact on a dog. Don’t overdo socialization experiences; be sure to stop while you and your puppy are still having a good time. It’s better to have short, but frequent, positive experiences.

Consistent Handling

Therapy animals need to be at ease with physical contact. When they are young, start by touching their body everywhere including feet, ears, tail, and mouth. Begin with soft and gentle touch and work up to slightly clumsy, but never painful, touch.

Also take time every day to establish comfort with grooming. Brush your puppy’s hair and teeth, and touch, clip, or file your pup’s nails. Decide if you will be the person to give your dog a bath or if you will have a professional groomer do these tasks. If you plan to use a groomer, be sure and introduce your puppy to the groomer and equipment at an early age.

Develop a Trusting Relationship

Discover the things that make you and your dog joyful. Like any friendship, you must experience different things together so that you discover what it is that makes both of you happy: go on walks, take hikes in the woods, play in the park, visit the beach. For experiences that are less desirable for your animal, take steps to improve the situation or shorten its duration. As a therapy animal team, your animal will count on you to advocate for them while visiting. By taking that role seriously for your puppy, they will come to trust that you consistently make decisions in their best interest. This trust is the cornerstone for the teamwork needed for every successful therapy animal team.

Start Training

Basic obedience is necessary for any therapy animal. This is something you can work on individually or with a trainer. If you plan to use a trainer, how do you know which trainer to pick for your puppy? Will the trainer be a good fit for you and your pup? The Association for Professional Dog Trainers has a great resource that can answer these questions. You need to consider the methodology that the training center and trainer uses when you select a program. Pet Partners advocates for positive reinforcement and force-free methods for training because it contributes to the trusting relationship you are building.

Don’t neglect your own training, either. Learning to read your animal’s body language is critical for a therapy animal handler. Can you identify the subtle cues your animal gives you when they are unsure of a situation? And if so, do you know how to respond to support your animal? The Pet Partners online canine body language course is a great place to start.

Find a Veterinarian

As your puppy’s advocate, the selection of a veterinarian is critical to your pet’s long term well-being. A successful relationship with your veterinarian is built on mutual trust, respect, and communication. Look for someone with a similar approach to pet care as you who will be open to questions and who values your observations about your animal.

Determine Aptitude and Interest

There isn’t a formula for determining if a puppy is going to be a good therapy dog. Successful therapy animals are affiliative in nature. They enjoy spending time with people, and not just their owner or family, but people they haven’t met previously. Their strong bond with their owner translates into a trust that you will keep them safe, so they can be more tolerant or forgiving of clumsy interactions or surprising distractions. They enjoy providing comfort to others and seek out interactions.

Ultimately, it is your responsibility as your animal’s best advocate to ensure that your animal truly enjoys – not merely tolerates – therapy animal interactions. A dog with strong obedience skills may be able to perform some therapy animal tasks, but if they are enduring the interactions because they feel they must follow your direction, that may ultimately erode the trusting relationship with your animal. It is up to every pet owner to be their animal’s advocate and make choices in their animal’s best interests, including whether therapy work is the right choice.

Think you’re ready to become a Pet Partner therapy animal team?

Pet Partners provides a comprehensive registration process that evaluates a prospective therapy animal team for volunteer work. The registration involves a combination of coursework and assessment. Learn more about becoming a handler or create an account in the Volunteer Center to get started.

While these suggestions were written with puppies in mind, the same concepts apply to all species we register and adopted animals of all ages.