We’ve Got the Team for You

So many amazing things happen almost daily through our therapy dog program that it would be hard to share them all. However, I want to share about one of my favorite experiences and that is when a program or facility contacts us with a request for a team visit and I know right away that we’ve got just the right team. It’s such a fabulous feeling to know that we can fulfill a request and that the fit will be just right.

Last week, we were able to successfully launch a new therapy dog program at the King County Juvenile Detention Center because we had just the right team – Deneese and her Doberman Ricochet.

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Should My New Dog Become a Therapy Dog?

Our former Board President, Monica Payson, shares her experience of embracing the newest addition to her family, Aggie Pit Bull and discerning whether or not she should become a therapy dog.

 Beautiful Aggie

Beautiful Aggie

When Aggie joined our family in September of 2016, I had been doing dog therapy and crisis response for almost 20 years. Asking if I was going to certify my newest dog was natural, but my answer at the time was “no.” Aggie was pulled from a kill shelter in southern CA only to languish in a boarding facility for six months. When my neighbor volunteered to foster, Aggie was shipped to Seattle on an overnight transport. She came off the truck dirty, desperately out of shape, and with a bad case of diarrhea. Her eyes were swollen and runny. She was in no shape to test and visit.

But Aggie also came off the truck sweet, gentle, loving, and calm. Her shelter notes said she was good with dogs and cats. She knew how to sit, walked nicely on leash, and came when called. She learned quickly, and I would have said at that point that she had the makings of a therapy dog. What I didn’t realize was what a long journey we would have unpacking Aggie’s trauma and uncovering the dog beneath.

Month 1: Aggie starts exhibiting high prey drive toward squirrels. She also starts to show aggression toward other dogs, even as she is becoming more comfortable and attached to our two bullmastiffs. I take her to a pet supply store and she is terrified. I realize I cannot predict which new environments will feel safe to her.

Month 2: The pitbull clown starts to break through the calm, and I realize that “calm” was really emotional shutdown and exhaustion from months in a shelter. With the joyful antics comes a level of arousal that sometimes shuts down Aggie’s ability to think. It also becomes clear that no one taught Aggie not to use her mouth when she is excited. While she is always gentle, we’re going to have to work hard on eliminating this behavior. Aggie’s aggression toward other dogs continues to increase and I switch her to front clip harness to save stress on her neck when she lunges. While she generally likes people and accepts attention from strangers, Aggie shows fear around a person who smells like cigarette smoke for the first time. I don’t know what other physical characteristics might cause her stress. Though we try medication, Aggie’s eyes continue to be swollen and runny and we worry that her vision is compromised.

Month 3: Aggie has surgery to fix her eye issues. Almost immediately after, she starts leaking urine. I believe she has spay related incontinence, but wait to see if it will improve on its own. The incontinence comes and goes, but it will take until month 8 before I really sort out causes and begin to be able to reliably manage the problem. Aggie’s dog aggression becomes intense enough that she flips herself lunging so hard. She becomes so aroused, so quickly that she cannot hear me or take food. I switch all of my training focus to reducing Aggie’s arousal and teaching her to think instead of just reacting.

Month 4: I try to teach Aggie to potty on command to relieve her incontinence. She won’t pee or poop on walks so I think she might be leaking because she just gets too full. Although I try to be gentle, this training is clearly deeply stressful for her and I stop.

Month 5: I start to realize that Aggie is sometimes afraid of men. I have a hard time identifying specific characteristics that trigger this. Aggie realizes she can pee and poop on walks! She seems to really enjoy this new discovery though any kind of pressure from me to relieve herself is still very stressful.

Month 8: We take our first vacation with the dogs, and, while Aggie enjoys the trip, she leaks almost constantly. We finally see the vet and put her on hormone replacement. This immediately resolves most of the leaking, and her occasional breakthrough leaks allow me to see that diet, but more importantly, stress contribute to her incontinence. We begin to believe Aggie was hit by a previous owner, but it’s hard to know exactly what circumstances (body movements, tone of voice) will cause her fear response.

Aggie has now been with us for a full year. Though we now see all of the pitbull joy and exuberance, she is still the sweet, gentle, devoted dog I first met. She loves having a family, and she’s learning to relax and trust that the world is an okay place. For all the progress we’ve made, I still have no plans to certify Aggie. There are still too many stressors that I can’t predict or control, and too many of her stress responses that are incompatible with therapy dog visiting. Most importantly, though, while Aggie likes people, it’s very clear to me that she wants to give all that love to her family. So, until she tells me otherwise, Aggie’s only job is to be a beloved family pet.

Tater Tot is a Certified Therapy Puppy

  The Tot in Practice Lab. He was very eager to meet everybody!

The Tot in Practice Lab. He was very eager to meet everybody!

We are so happy to share that Tater Tot is officially a therapy puppy! Project Canine is the only organization we are aware of that certifies dogs under 1 year of age. We do this because puppies bring a special kind of healing energy to people. That being said, it’s very difficult for a puppy to become certified because, well, they are puppies! And a lot of what is typical for puppies is not appropriate for therapy dog visits. Currently, we certify approximately 4 puppies per year. Here are some of the keys for a puppy to be certified:

  • Bite inhibition – this is a dog’s ability to moderate the pressure and use of its teeth and mouth
  •  Self-regulation – a puppy needs to be able be a puppy, but not be lunging, crying, whining and chewing on visitors
  •  Obedience skills – puppies must have their basic obedience skills including polite "4 on the floor" greetings.

To find out more about certifying a puppy with Project Canine you can read our puppy readiness document by clicking here.

We focus on puppies 5 months of age or older for certification. It is possible to certify puppies younger than that, but only by special application. Generally, these very young puppies require very experienced handlers in order to successfully certify and we do perhaps 1 per year.

There are special considerations when handling a puppy:

  • We recommend very short visits. About 15 – 30 minutes works well.
  • We recommend calm environments like eldercare vs. high-intensity group visits or visits with lots of children.
  • It’s important that puppy handlers are very tuned in to their dogs and don’t allow them to become overtired or overstimulated.
  •  Puppy handlers also need to recognize if their puppy needs a break from therapy visits because they have developed a behavior that is inappropriate for therapy visits and needs to be worked on and worked through before they start visiting again.

Judi has worked VERY HARD to socialize Tater and get him used to medical equipment, strangers, and lots of different types of situations and sounds. Judi has been taking him to puppy classes and also puppy play times and she has been vigilant in working with him in a way that is positive and builds her relationship with him.

Although Tater has certified, “it’s not over.” He is just 18 weeks old and there is a lot more to do before he is a solid, adult therapy dog. We will do a check-in with him at 6 months old and then he will have to do the Adult Certification process at 1 year of age.

One of the key things we are focusing on with Tater right now is his arousal around other dogs. While he was 100% solid in the neutral dog steps of the exam, he has exhibited intensity around other dogs in other situations. It is behavior that is typical for his Jack Russell breed and Judi is focusing on teaching him not to “take a stand” with other dogs and not to be toy or resource possessive towards other dogs.

We will update you soon with more on Tater’s progress.

Puppy Panic!

This week's blog is a very personal one from Judi and if you have ever had a puppy we bet you can relate!


"I think I have lost my mind. What was I thinking? This will never work. I am being unfair to my elder dog(s) and I am sure they hate me for introducing a new pup." As a certified professional canine educator, I hear these statements from my clients frequently. These are typical comments when a puppy makes their appearance in my clients' homes and lives. For some, it is their first puppy, for others it as an addition to a canine companion(s) in the home. My role in their decision to bring in a new puppy is to ask logical and reasonable exploratory questions to help them make the right choice. I always tell them it is not a decision to be made lightly. I sagely tell them a new puppy is stress-inducing for all the beings in your home. It requires planning, patience, commitment, and potentially some Valium. (Just kidding, wanted to be sure you are still with me!) If my clients do decide to get a puppy I always get joyful emails of thanks with pictures of the little darling at first. And then...my cell phone rings and I can only hear barking from a chorus of dogs and a person crying. Next, they sob, "I have to return the puppy, it isn't working, he is possessed, my other dogs hate him and me too. My husband and I haven't gotten a full nights sleep for three days. He screams in his crate, is a land shark, and then, we went to puppy class and I was so embarrassed because he was the W O R S T puppy there! When the very kind instructor went to help calm him he went wolf-dog and put his teeth on her, she yelped as if he had bitten her hand off and then ignored him. The other people in class looked at me as if I had brought a mass murderer to class. I made a terrible mistake!" Take a deep breath I say. Remember I told you the first month would be extremely challenging? Remember I said it is a big adjustment for you, your spouse and your family dogs. I made you take the time to think it through, you researched, puppy proofed, stocked up on everything you needed and you signed up for that puppy class designed to socialize and teach that precious new puppy who is learning and experiencing so many new things. My words were intended to be wise and helpful, but in retrospect, it may have been a bit patronizing. There is a long pause and the client says,"Really? It's easy for you to say! You are not living this insanity!" Stop the blog right here...

Yes, I am living this insanity right now. Everything that I stated above, that I have heard and shared with my clients is coming back to haunt me. I am that exhausted and worried new puppy mom! The statements above are all words I said to my husband, friends and colleagues over the previous weekend.

 Tater Tot at 12 weeks old.

Tater Tot at 12 weeks old.

Tater Tot was the puppy who was possessed in class. One of our fabulous trainers for Great Dog and Project Canine was the instructor who did the exact thing Tot needed when he put teeth on her. She yelped like a hurt puppy and refused to play with him for a bit to teach him how to be more appropriate with his mouth! By the time puppy class and playtime was over Tater Tot was so much more appropriate and yet, I was still worried and overwhelmed. Talking about my fears with the trainer/examiners for Project Canine that afternoon helped me identify my own "puppy panic!"

I have other dogs at home, and our canine family members are all working out the new pack dynamics to adapt to Tater. There has been lots of lost sleep, yep. But the Tot has not made one single potty mistake either in his crate or our house. Good dog!

I think almost everyone who has embraced the joy and serious responsibility of a new puppy has these moments of fear and frustration that equate to puppy panic! Special thanks to my wonderful friends who are also Great Dog and Project Canine staff for their insight and coaching. Of course, I need to thank my equally amazing husband and my canine family members. And Tater Tot...he is a remarkable puppy.  

If you want to get a puppy, even if you plan carefully and temperament test and do everything you can to optimize the experience, you are still bringing a new baby being into your life and world who needs your help, guidance, and instruction and you will certainly have times of fear and frustration while raising him or her. My hope is that you will realize this is normal. And even as a canine professional with many years of experience, I am feeling it too. 

Selecting a Puppy - It Starts with Temperament

 Tater Tot on the doorstep of his new home with Judi for the first time.

Tater Tot on the doorstep of his new home with Judi for the first time.

There are some very important things to keep in mind if you decide to get a puppy with the goal of having it become a therapy dog. The first consideration is temperament.

Temperament is “the animal's nature, especially as it permanently affects their behavior.” So this is actually different than personality. Personality is something that develops and evolves over time in both humans and animals. Temperament is the “combination of mental, physical, and emotional traits of an animal as in its natural predisposition.” If you have ever seen newborn babies you know they come into this world with tendencies. Some are naturally more quiet, some sleep more, some are more energetic, etc. This is “temperament.” In fancy language, they call it a “neurobiological leaning.” In other words, there are some characteristics in humans and in animals that just “are what they are.” They are inherent and they aren’t going to go away. If your puppy doesn’t have the temperament to be a therapy dog you won’t be able to train them into having the right temperament. Some puppies just aren’t meant to be therapy dogs. This is one of the hardest things we have to tell prospective handlers when they come to class - that their dog just isn’t meant for this.

 Tater's first day at daycare. He had a great time!

Tater's first day at daycare. He had a great time!

There are several established temperament tests for puppies. One of the most well-known is the Volhard puppy test. If at all possible, try to get someone who is experienced with puppy temperament testing to help you evaluate the puppy you are considering. If you are working with a breeder, be sure to share your goals with them and get their input on which puppy is most suited to what you want to do. If you don’t have access to help with temperament testing here are some keys to consider when looking for a potential therapy dog:

  • Vocalizing – therapy dogs can do some vocalizing, but in general, must be quiet. If you see a puppy who is already very vocal, it’s probably not the right one for you.
  •  Bite Inhibition – is your puppy's ability to inhibit the force of his bites. It is all about a pup learning how to use his teeth for safe interactions with people and other animals. This link to Dr. Ian Dunbar's website gives an excellent overview of what you must know about teaching bite inhibition. http://www.dogstardaily.com/training/teaching-bite-inhibition (BTW  - this website is our number one recommendation for everything you need to know about raising a puppy! Tater Tot is being raised the Ian Dunbar way.) If you want a certified therapy puppy they must have exceptional bite inhibition and self-control as far as using their teeth. Even if you are looking for the puppy to be a therapy dog as an adult, you want one that has learned not to use their mouth on people. This is the number one most critical skill that must be present to certify a puppy as a therapy puppy and it is a skill any dog must possess as an adult to become a therapy dog.
  • Energy level – in general, you want a middle-of-the-road to lower energy puppy. High exuberance levels and intense drive mean that other activities are probably more appropriate for the puppy. 
  •  Interest in people – some puppies by nature are more interested in people. You want one that is naturally social and likes to engage.
  • Confident – you want a puppy who is curious and interested in the world. If they are very fearful and timid by nature, therapy dog work will likely be too overwhelming.

Next week – “What have I done?” The phenomenon of New Puppy Panic…

Welcome Tater Tot!

 Opie Jack Russell

Opie Jack Russell

Three years ago our “founding therapy dog,” Opie Jack Russell Terrier, canine partner of our President, Judi Anderson-Wright, sadly passed away. Since then Judi has been grieving, healing and contemplating – what next? Today we know the answer. We are so excited to announce that she has found her new partner, a Jack Russell Terrier Puppy named, “Tater Tot.”

One of the top requests we get is from people asking to us to train their puppies to become therapy dogs, or they want to take our classes with the belief it will make their puppies into therapy dogs. The thing is, it’s just not that simple. It’s not about taking a class, similar to a puppy obedience class, and voila! You will have a therapy dog! Because of this we have decided to share the journey of selecting, raising and training Tater Tot to let you know what really goes into developing a certified therapy dog. And truth upfront, we don’t know for sure at this early stage Tater will actually make it. It’s one of the reasons we want to share the story. There are no guarantees when getting a puppy that they can or will become a therapy dog.

Of course, all puppies are different and not everything that happens with Tater Tot will be relevant to every puppy, but by sharing his story, we hope to help people understand what raising a puppy to be a therapy dog really involves.

 Tater Tot on the left, his brother Bonaparte on the right at age 6 weeks

Tater Tot on the left, his brother Bonaparte on the right at age 6 weeks

There are some guiding principles and ways to approach selecting a puppy that will maximize the chances that you will end up with the therapy dog you hope for and we will try to explain those to the best of our ability.

One of the most important things is to keep an open mind and try to be as objective as possible. If your puppy isn’t meant to be a therapy dog there are many other activities and experiences you can share that are enriching and enjoyable for both of you. So above all, be honest with yourself and don’t force your dog to comply to an activity that you really want to do, but he or she does not. Be sure it’s something that is fulfilling for both you AND your dog.

Also keep in mind that while Project Canine certifies therapy puppies, other organizations do not. The qualities required to be a therapy puppy are in many ways opposite to how puppies naturally are. The average age of a therapy dog is 4-6 years old. If your dog is not able to be a therapy puppy or a therapy dog as a young dog,  give them time to mature and grow up. Therapy visits are actually incredibly challenging on many levels and most dogs need time to develop to be ready.

Next up, we will talk about the puppy selection process and we are going to start with temperament. Keep an eye on the Facebook and Instagram pages for announcements of the next post.