How to Train a Therapy Dog for Anxiety

Therapy dogs can improve the wellbeing of someone experiencing anxiety by providing emotional support. You may hear therapy dogs being called “comfort dogs” and that is because they support an individual by providing both attention and comfort. The unconditional love of therapy dogs can provide a real therapeutic benefit to someone who is facing challenges in their life. It can also be rewarding to train a therapy dog. If this is something you are interested in, you will learn how to train a therapy dog for anxiety.

What Do Therapy Dogs Do?

There’s a wide range of tasks that a service dogs for anxiety can complete. These include tactile responses where the dog interacts with the person, among other things like:

  • Distracting a person who is having an anxiety attack by pawing or licking
  • Providing soothing deep pressure therapy by the dog using its weight and sometimes warmth to cause a calming effect
  • Alerting the owner about the early signs of an anxiety attack
  • Finding and retrieving medication when an anxiety attack is taking place
  • Alerting someone in the home of the person's distress
  • Retrieving a phone during an anxiety attack

Which Types of Dogs Make the Best Therapy Dogs?

It's generally recommended that you consider the tasks you will need the dog to complete and then that will lead you to the right choice of breed. For example, a Papillon may be the right choice for a dog who jumps onto your lap but not such a good option if you need your phone retrieved.

The correct temperament is essential to enable the dog to do this important job. While you can approach breeders who specialize in raising service dog candidates, you may also find a perfect trainee at the local shelter.

Meeting the pup's parents will give you a good idea about how their personality might develop, but this is no guarantee. However, a 1-year-old shelter dog will have a reasonably stable temperament. This means that you will have a much clearer understanding of their suitability for therapy dog work. There are certain aspects to look for to know if a dog will be a good therapy dog:

  • Sociability. The dog should be quick to come and say hello to someone they do not know.
  • Does not startle easily. If you drop something on the floor, do they startle but then quickly recover, or do they remain apprehensive?
  • Follows orders. Does the dog want to be with people, or are they more interested in creating their own fun?
  • Accepting of human touch. Do they struggle to get away when gently held, or do they relax and enjoy the contact?
  • Alertness. If you roll a ball on the floor, does the dog go and investigate, or do they ignore it?

How to Train a Therapy Dog for Anxiety Assistance

A therapy dog needs to be relaxed and comfortable in a wide range of environments, so well-planned socialization is essential. This means getting your youngster out into lots of new places, ensuring that they can remain relaxed and not become overwhelmed. This also means going to different locations; they also need to meet a whole range of people, so that could include different ages, ethnicities and appearances.

Most dogs are ready to begin specialist training when they are 12 to 18 months old. Although, as we have detailed below, there is plenty to focus on before you get to this stage. You should expect the training process to take at least six months before your dog can reliably perform a therapy dog role.

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Basic Therapy Dog Training

Your therapy dog needs all the obedience training that a well-mannered pet requires. So, that includes, sit, down and stay, as well as walking on a loose leash and coming back when called. Life skills are also needed, so that includes being able to settle in different settings and to ignore or leave tempting items when out. Attending a local training class is an excellent way of combining socializing, training and learning to work with the distractions of the other dogs.

Then, it is the time to take the skills learned in the training class into all the environments in which you will need your dog's assistance.

Planning for Individual Response Training

Now your dog is ready to commence their training as a therapy dog. First, decide what alert your dog will give when your anxiety level increases. This might be a nose nudge, or a paw placed on your leg.

Next, consider the signs of anxiety that you want your dog to be alert about. This could include an increased rate of breathing, muscle movements, or touching your face, all of which are signs that people give when anxiety is increasing.

Then, you need to consider if your dog should perform actions that will help to reduce anxiety. These could include fetching medication, increasing your awareness of the situation, or applying deep pressure therapy.

What Is Individual Response Training?

This is used to teach your dog alert behavior, which might be a nose nudge to the leg. This can be trained by using a treat to lure your dog's nose towards your leg and then rewarding as they make contact. When your dog can reliably nudge your leg, then you can add the cue, which might be “nudge”.

The next step is generalization, which means that no matter where you are, your dog can perform the behavior on cue. Train in different rooms of the home, outside and on walks.

Now, select an anxiety cue for the behavior to be performed on. So, this might mean that when you touch your face, your dog should nudge you.

Then, pretend you have an anxiety symptom and then give the verbal cue for your dog to be alert. This can be touching your face, then saying “nudge”. When your dog performs the nudging behavior, you can reward them.

Repeat this for several times a day until your dog can immediately perform the behavior on cue. Finally, just give the anxiety cue, such as touching your face and reward your dog when they perform the alert behavior

In Review

As you can see, the training process needs careful planning and long-term commitment. Take things slowly, make it rewarding for your dog, and they will soon learn what is required.