We always say the best therapy teams begin with the relationship at both ends of the leash, the relationship between the handler and animal. This is the most important element of a successful animal assisted therapy team.
It is not about giving commands or the most obedient dog. It is about understanding your dog and the dog understanding you. This is why so much time is devoted to animal behavior ad body language during the Pet Partner Handler Workshop. learning those subtle signals you need to know to fully communicate with your dog. Your number one responsibility as a therapy team is to advocate for your animal. Knowing when your dog is stressed or tired or just not into the population, environment, stimuli around him is key to knowing when to cut a visit short or move on to other assignments.
Many people attend our Pet Partners / Love Dog orientations and are surprised how little time is spent on the commands they think their dog needs. Yes your dog must have solid basic obedience such as knowing how to sit, stay, come, wait, leave it etc. But what is most important is how solid THEIR relationship is. Is the dog in tune with the handler, looking at him or her, calmly taking direction, walking nicely at the handlers’ pace, stopping when the handler stops, looking at the handler as if to say “What do you want next? Am I doing a good job,” being a true partner with their human. And how the human end of the leash communicates to the dog is critical. Are they strict or harsh or frustrated? Or are they simply enjoying being with their dog and very gentle with their directions. Are they always aware of where their dog is and how to best communicate what they want. Even though our therapy dogs are always on a leash, does the handler let the leash wrap around them, let the dog pull, not even know how to walk a dog safely?
All the obedience elements can be taught but the relationship must be there to begin with and the understanding that this is a team activity and the best therapy teams work as a solid unit and it is a beautifully synchronized dance. And both handler and dog are rewarded the same way – with a feeling of pride and accomplishment and great love.