The Making of a Therapy Dog: Archer begins training

May 18, 2009

Archer is a black tri-colored Australian Shepherd adolescent. He is handsome, appealing and has a wonderful personality. My husband, Paul, and I adopted him at five months of age. He had been in three homes before us, kept as a potential show dog by the breeder, stud dog owner and handler. But his bite is not correct, and he had a retained testicle, and that was the end of  his show career. Since we spay or neuter all our dogs and are interested in dog sports and activities — and are no longer interested in competing in conformation dog shows –  we didn’t care about his faults. Heck, I have many worse faults than he does!

Archer did very well in basic obedience training. He really wants to please us and tries really hard. Sometimes too hard. When he doesn’t know what we want, he is a whirlwind at offering behaviors.  For example,  Paul began doing some trick training for fun, and Archer learned to play dead, touch, back up, shake right paw, left paw, sneeze and more. So now Archer will chain those all together one right after the other –  so quickly that it’s hard to determine exactly what it is he’s doing. It’s actually quite fun!

Once his basic obedience skills were very good, I decided it was time to begin his therapy dog training. What is unique (except to other dog trainers), is that when my dogs go through training they learn as I teach the classes. So on Archer’s first therapy dog class, I demonstrated exercises with my 5-year-old Aussie, Bashir, first and then with Archer next. So Archer got to learn as he was also demo dog for the classes. But it’s fun for the students, too, as I explain that this is happening. So they get to see that the trainer’s dogs need training too. They don’t arrive fully trained!

The first therapy dog class begins with  a refresher of basic obedience skills that are on the therapy dog certification test. This includes sit, down, stay, come and walk on a leash nicely. Archer has no trouble with those commands and most of the other dogs in class were fine, too. A few need some touch up work and their owners are given some guidance as to how to do this.

Then the dogs are all introduced to wheelchairs, walkers and canes. The dogs and owners are in a large circle in the training yard and our trainers move the medical equipment around the circle. The owners are to encourage their dogs to walk up to the equipment, sniff, investigate and get used to it. As I demonstrate, Archer jumps up in the seat of the wheelchair. That’s not exactly what I wanted but I can say he’s definitely not shy or scared!

We also bring out some noise makers, such as toys and bells, and some visual stimuli — flapping trash bags and a flapping sheet — to see if there are some dogs in the class who might have a problem with strange  sounds or sights.  We usually have one or two dogs per class that are worried but this class, made up of all Golden Retrievers from a Golden MeetUp group, did great. No one was worried or afraid of either the noise makers or the visual stimuli.

The last exercise of the first class consisted of some social exercises much like those in the Canine Good Citizen test. A trainer walked up to each dog and owner, shook hands with the owner, talked for a moment and then asked to pet the dog. The dog’s head was touched, including the ears, and then the dog was touched all over. The feet, body and tail (if the dog had a tail) were all handled. A couple of the dogs protested (mildly) having their feet touched and we’ll work on that. Archer had no problems being touched, but he did get in a good slurp across the the trainer’s face. We’ll have to work on that, too, because a lot of the people he may visit as a therapy dog may not like sloppy kisses.

At the conclusion of the first class I was happy with Archer. He wasn’t afraid of wheelchairs, walkers, moving canes, flapping sheets, flapping trash bags  or toys that make noise. His obedience skills are good. And when the trainer touched him all over, his only reaction was to give her a wet, sloppy lick across the face. Not bad at all!

Next week I’ll detail Archer’s second therapy dog class, which includes introducing the command, “Go say hi!”  We also teach the dogs how to approach wheelchairs and walkers.

Meanwhile this week I’m going to make a point of taking Archer different places. I want him to walk on different surfaces, see different sights, hear strange noises and meet a variety of people. Although I did all of this with him after we adopted him, and his breeder did a very good job of socializing him, I want to make sure his socialization skills are excellent for his future therapy dog work. So Archer and I will be busy this week.

Image: Archer gets hugged during training.

Filed under: behavior and training,pets, connected — Liz Palika @ 5:15 am


  1. A poster on another board I post to just got a puppy she hopes to do therapy work with later, and I directed her to this post. So hopefully you’ll be writing follow-ups!

    Comment by The OTHER Pat — May 18, 2009 @ 5:36 am

  2. Just realized that could be misinterpreted. I don’t mean follow-ups in that she’d use what you wrote as her training instructions. Rather, follow-up that will help her (and others) see from another dog’s experience the usefulness and applicability of the kinds of things therapy-dogs-in-training are asked to become very good at.

    Comment by The OTHER Pat — May 18, 2009 @ 5:39 am

  3. Archer sounds a lot like Harper, especially as far as stringing actions together to see which one is wanted. Wish us luck tonight. It’s the second part of the CGC test, and in addition to passing the last two tests, she has to make up the down-stay, which she flunked last week (kept getting up just as I bent down to touch her).

    Comment by Kim Thornton — May 18, 2009 @ 7:58 am

  4. My boy just received certification and is now our school therapy dog. It amazes me how much he adds to our school climate and how much the kids love him. Good luck in getting certified!

    Comment by Verde — May 18, 2009 @ 9:56 am

  5. Thanks, Verde. She took the test last year at 9 months and got all but one (kept wanting to go meet the neutral dog). This time she passed that with no problem but won’t hold the down. I feel like someone who has to keep taking the bar exam. :-)

    Comment by Kim Thornton — May 18, 2009 @ 10:03 am

  6. Great article. We go for our evaluation on Saturday. ST. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program. We have a Canine Good Citizen award and I don’t for see any problem except for some food issues. Bailie is a 10-year-old Lab and is looking for a semi retirement position. Agility and search work are getting to be a little too much for him. Hopefully the evaluation goes well and he can start bringing his love for people to those that need it.

    Comment by Bill — May 18, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

  7. Good for you, Bill! I will cross my fingers for your old boy. Those grey dog faces are just as appealing as the fresh young ones!

    Comment by Liz Palika — May 18, 2009 @ 8:11 pm

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