BARKS from the Guild September 2015 Issue - Great Expectations September 05 2015

Based on her current experiences with red heeler puppy, Gertie Mae, Gail Radtke details how to go about training a therapy dog while admitting that, ultimately, it is up to the dog.

I expect great things for Gertie Mae, my six-month-old Australian cattle dog, as she follows in the footsteps of my late red heeler, Tawny Mae (see The Art of Teamwork, BARKS from the Guild, July 2015, p.41-43) to become a therapy dog with the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program. However, part of me is starting to face the reality that my expectations for Gertie Mae and her expectations for herself might be worlds apart. Gertie Mae is a true heeler in all her herding glory. If it moves, it must be chased! Herding and therapy dog work do not really go together. As such, I have my work cut out for me if I am to stick to my plan to train Gertie Mae to be a therapy dog and evaluate her when she is two years old, which is the current required age for the St. John Therapy Dog program.

I started training with Gertie Mae from minute I brought her home at the age of 11 weeks. As the program coordinator for the St. John Ambulance Therapy dog prison visitation program with Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge, British Columbia (see Endless Possibilities, BARKS from the Guild, May 2015, p.43-45), I had the necessary access to take Gertie Mae into the prison with me. This gave me the opportunity to expose her to a unique new environment and meet a diverse population of people in a controlled setting. Bearing in mind the principles of classical conditioning, I made sure to pair each experience with a high value food treat or toy to make it a positive experience. Much of Gertie Mae’s future therapy dog work will be in the prison program so her experience of this environment at such a young age will be invaluable for her future evaluation.

When I am training with Gertie Mae I spend a great deal of time teaching her how to resist moving objects. For her breed characteristics and instinct this can be difficult of course but I do not believe it to be impossible. Gertie Mae is wonderful with adults, but I have discovered that she has difficulty relaxing with younger children who move quickly and make loud noises because she wants to break out into chasing games. Impulse control training at her young age is also a vital component. Learning to not go with her instinct and instead make different choices takes time, and all interactions need to be planned out so certain behaviors cannot be rehearsed and strengthened. Using the principles of positive reinforcement I can reward calm behavior and whenever she chooses to disregard moving objects. I am fortunate to have my own training facility in Mission, British Columbia where I can set up specific training scenarios in a controlled environment. Play and physical interaction is highly rewarding for Gertie Mae so I use toys and play to reinforce behaviors with her; food is not always deemed to be of the highest value with a playful puppy like this with cattle dog energy.

In one of the recent puppy classes at my training centre I preplanned a number of scenarios in which I enlisted the help of several friends to attend the class for puppy handling exercises and exposure to groups of people. One of the exercises I find helpful for the pups - including mine - is to have the helpers form a line sitting on their knees facing sideways. The helpers do not make direct eye contact with the pups but instead hold out their hands palm upwards with a treat in it. The handler walks the pup down the line of people and the pup then eats each treat out of the outreached palms. Movement can be increased as the pups make a successful pass by. This is an excellent exercise for shy pups (or adult dogs for that matter) to associate people with good things.

I find another good set up for puppy class is to enlist a group of helpers to come in and handle the pups. The helpers have high value treats with them and pass the pups between them, handling and touching them each time and giving them treats. These exercises have been very successful in helping Gertie Mae create positive associations with people.

I have also been exposing her to equipment she may come into contact with as a therapy dog. I recommend this to anyone who would like their dog to become involved in therapy work. It is essential for a therapy dog to be comfortable around wheelchairs, walkers and physical assistance equipment, not only in their stationary positions but also when they are moving. As such, setting up the training experience is important. Gertie Mae is fine with many objects when they are stationary but as soon as they start to move she wants to herd and nip at their “heels” in true heeler fashion. To train her, I start with the objects in a stationary position and gradually move closer to them each time we pass, with treats placed near the object. I then move the treat closer to the stationary object. As her comfort level increases and she continues to display no reaction to the object, I move the treat onto the object for her to retrieve. Once I have repeated this exercise I add in a person with the object and begin again with the systematic approach. This time the end goal is the person and object moving past and Gertie Mae choosing to engage with me instead of herding them. I cannot say we are completely there yet but she is definitely coming along. I am fortunate to have a friend and her shy six-month-old female Mastiff, Phaedra, working with us; together we can create the training setups needed.

Ultimately it is Gertie Mae who will have the final say on whether she becomes a therapy dog or not. I do not want to change who she is. It could well be that Gertie Mae has a few things to teach me along the way as well, just as each of my dogs, past and present, has done. Maybe she will want to be out herding more than she wants to do therapy work.

If you would like to become involved in therapy work with your dog, please check the references for the different types of evaluations and testing done by organizations in North America. And finally, bear in mind that the most important thing of all is getting out there and enjoying the company of your dog, no matter what his job is.