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.
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…