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.

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…