Therapy Dogs: Not Born, Not Made, but Shaped

If all dogs go to heaven, Peaches hopes it’s filled with lots and lots of kids because they’re her favorite. In this photo, Peaches visits with a new friend after we ran the Arts in Motion 5k event, nearly 7 months prior to her therapy dog testing. I had to get the whole crowd to help coax her across the chip timer pad covering the finish line because she was scared to walk on it.

As an inherently romantic society, we Americans love talking about how we were “born to” do something.  “I was born to run.”  “She was born a gifted writer.”  “He was born to do this kind of work.”  . . . “I was born to be a teacher.”  In reality, the only things we were born to do are eat, sleep, breathe, and be social.  And maybe play around on Facebook all day.  And I guess that also falls under that social category.

Similar to many jobs and professions, teaching seems to suffer from the popular notion that as long as you’ve got some kind of inherent charisma, that all you need to do to is go to college, learn a few snazzy classroom management tricks, and voila . . . you’re a great teacher who’s going to wow your students and help them soar to new heights like Jaime Escalante or Michelle Pfeifer.  What Hollywood and well-intentioned programs  like Teach for America don’t tell you, however–probably because they don’t know–is that, on average, most teachers really don’t hit their stride and mature professionally until their fifth year of teaching.

That’s because learning to teach is an ongoing, lifelong process, not an end goal.  Any truly amazing teacher will tell you just how tough and unsuccessful they felt their first years in the job really were.  Because finishing a degree or passing a test isn’t like flipping a switch.  It doesn’t magically make you something.  All we can ever do is use what we know to shape what we have, and constantly aspire towards professional and personal growth.

The same is true for working dogs, whether they busy themselves with herding, doing agility, engaging in therapy or service dog work, or just bringing you and your friends a Bud Light from the fridge.  No dog is born to do this kind of work, and not every dog can easily be taught to do this kind of work, both of which Patricia McConnell succinctly and thoughtfully explains in a recent blog post on whether therapy dogs are born or made.  Because great animal behaviorists and dog trainers like her know that dog behavior and truly successful training are about recognizing what’s already there and shaping it.   And not just shaping it until they’re 18 months old, or two years old, but over a lifetime.

Buster asks, “Dear God, was I born to be a therapy dog or do I just really love my treats?”

Right now, I have two young dogs who have been registered therapy dogs for a little less than a year.  Both dogs are rescued “pit bull” mixes who were rescued as very young puppies (less than 12 weeks old).  And I see their training and development as therapy dogs as an ongoing project, and one that may very well not include both of them succeeding at the work at the same time, if at all.

One dog, Peaches, was a submissive peer from four months to approximately 15 months of age.  If the wind blew, she barked and peed.  If you dropped a pan in the kitchen, she barked and peed.  If she got too excited when new people said hello, she peed on them.  Once we ran into a 10 lbs. Min Pin dressed in a purple dog Snuggie on a walk and she rolled over 10 feet away from him and peed.  In addition to the peeing, things like unfamiliar buildings and new floor surfaces made her nervous.   All of these things would signal to any animal behaviorist or trainer, that this dog probably isn’t therapy dog material.

The second dog, Buster, has been unflappable since the day we started fostering him.  He has always been nonreactive to unfamiliar noises, places, people, dogs, and experiences.  He is highly food-motivated and the only thing he ever struggled with in obedience and therapy dog class was coming out of a stay once released because all he wanted to do was work more.  He has always been affectionate and loving with us and our friends, and is a rather handsome, adorable fellow to boot.

Even though I hoped that both dogs might do well with therapy work, the reality seemed imminent.  Peaches may very well never cross the threshold of a hospital building, let alone pass testing, and Buster appeared to be a natural.  That was 15 months ago.

Peaches submitting to Kitty, something she has done to every cat she’s met since she was 8 weeks old.

Today, it is Peaches who is thriving as a novice therapy dog with weekly visits to hospitals and schools, and even occasional participation in major nonprofit events with hundreds of people.  Meanwhile, I’m planning on revisiting therapy dog prep class with Buster, and leaning towards not renewing his registration this spring because while Buster loves training, he doesn’t really enjoy the actual work.  What happened?  I successfully shaped Peaches’ behavior.  I have yet to do that with Buster, and may ultimately decide it’s not in his best interest to do so.

The one factor I’ve yet to mention about Peaches is that the presence of human beings counteracts environmental factors that would otherwise make her nervous.  She is both “affiliative” and “aware of her job” like McConnell outlines:

Affiliative: This seems like a no-brainer, but the fact is that many dogs are presented for therapy work who really don’t like strangers all that much. They love their owners and good friends, but aren’t all that interested in other people. Good therapy dogs need to be the kind of dogs who ADORE people, all people, and want nothing more than to connect with them. It is, after all, the emotional connection that is often the therapeutic part of AAA and AAT.  It seems to me that dogs sort into 4 categories: 1) adore people, care little for other dogs, 2) adore dogs, care little for unfamiliar people, 3) adore members of both species and are thrilled to meet new ones and 4) adore neither dogs or people, except maybe their owner. Needless to say, only categories 1 and 3 are good therapy prospects.

Peaches loves and welcomes attention from strangers like no other living creature I have ever seen.  Recognizing this helped me shape her into the confident, successful dog she is now.  When Peaches was a puppy, I could more likely move mountains than I could coax her across an unfamiliar threshold onto linoleum floor like you find in hospitals and schools.  However, Peaches will follow new people anywhere.  So my new project became finding opportunities to encourage her to follow strangers into places she normally wouldn’t want to go.  Now, she’ll go anywhere.  Similarly, if you’d asked me a year ago if I thought Peaches could handle running into a noisy industrial floor cleaner in a hallway, I would have assumed it was a rhetorical question.  Now, during hospital visits, she proactively walks up to sniff it while it’s running and then says hello to the person operating it.

Meanwhile, Buster it turns out, while sharp as a tack with commands and any kind of environment, is not all that “affiliative.”  He loves people he is familiar with, but is fairly indifferent about everybody else, especially when compared to a good piece of cheese.    And recognizing this is much harder than one might think.  Because it’s not that he is afraid of or doesn’t like strangers, but that he just doesn’t care about them.  And that strikes me as one of the more nontherapeutic qualities a dog can possibly have.  (Although I’m sure a dog knocking you off your feet just after hip replacement surgery is a tad more undesirable.)  And because I didn’t recognize this early on, I wasn’t able to utilize appropriate opportunities to reshape that behavior.

But while I know that right now Buster may not make a great therapy dog, all that could change a few years down the road like McConnell points out, when he matures and has had some more training.  Or maybe not, and that’s okay too.  Because as our obedience and therapy dog trainer explained to us during our class orientation, the primary goal is to shape your dog into a happy, healthy and successful member of your family.  Everything beyond that, including therapy dog work, is just icing on the cake.

Buster and Peaches can often be found hanging out on their mat in anticipation of a treat because learning to quietly lay down in designated areas for long periods of time was part of their ongoing obedience and therapy dog training

This notion of born vs. made and therapy dog preparation has been on my mind a lot lately for two reasons.  The first is because of the pressing need to revisit Buster’s training and decide if both of us would be happier just letting Buster be goofy, nonaffiliative Buster.   The second is because of a news article from a year ago that I just recently found that made my skin crawl just reading it.

The article was about a woman in Michigan, a documentary film maker, who wanted to do something to help fight BSL and rehabilitate the reputation of “pit bulls.”  Her idea was to take a group of rescued pit bulls, find handlers for them, and turn them into successful, working therapy and service dogs.  This on its own I think is a nice idea with the best of intentions. Even though the fact is that not every dog is suitable for therapy or service dog work, and taking a whole group of dogs (of any breed) and assigning them such ambitious expectations could very well be setting them up for failure, particularly if you don’t happen to already be an experienced behaviorist and trainer.  Even litters of puppies bred specifically for jobs like K9 and service work inevitably have “washouts.”

What the news story then goes on to explain, however, is significantly more disturbing.  For some reason (perhaps because it’s a better story to tell on film?) she decided that she wanted to find a pregnant female pit bull and use the litter for her documentary.  After contacting local shelters and rescue groups, asking for a pregnant female and (fascinatingly) getting no positive response, this person then rescued a male and a female pit bull off the street . . . and BRED them to get the litter she wanted for her project.  And if that wasn’t enough, she then founded a rescue group called K10 Project Reputation Rescue.

Earlier this week I wrote about what I believe to be the dangers inherent in breed obsession.  And I believe this story to be a quintessential example of just that.  I know that those of you out there who have spent your lives working in animal welfare and rescue certainly don’t need me to explain the utter absurdity, if not insanity, involved in founding a dog rescue group by breeding two rescue dogs.  I’m hoping that those out there who aren’t involved with rescue don’t need me to either.

But in an effort to return to our earlier conversation . . . the news story specifically mentioned the following:

[She] decided to breed her dogs for the program and said their heritage, and their puppies, prove that how a pit bull is raised has more to do with what type of dog it becomes than their genes do.

“Our whole motto is nurture, not nature. We know nature plays a big role, but our belief is that nurture is a bigger thing,” she said.

If this isn’t about “genes,” then why was it necessary to have a litter of puppies from the same family?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to do just the opposite?  My remaining questions and comments I’ll leave unwritten . . . for now.

Five of the seven puppies in Peaches’ orphaned litter who were rescued near Detroit at only 10 days old. Decisions to breed and buy pit bull type dogs (regardless of your good intentions) mean that litters like this one get euthanized in shelters before they’re ever given a chance to find homes.

About emily douglas

Emily Douglas authors The Unexamined Dog blog and writes regularly about "pit bull" advocacy, humane education and the parallels between the education field and the dog world. Emily and her dog, Peaches volunteer as a registered therapy dog team in the Southeast Michigan area, where their visits are affectionately known as Peach Therapy.
This entry was posted in Advocacy, Animal behavior and training, Teaching and learning, Therapy Dogs or dogs in need of therapy, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Therapy Dogs: Not Born, Not Made, but Shaped

  1. I often hear “You have great dogs” and I always make a note to say that they are “Well trained”

  2. Cathy Corl says:

    Wow breeding dogs to rescue? From who? Can you rescue a dog you cause to be born?
    My two dogs also have taken the therapy dog test. Junior the intense type A guy who is reactive to other dogs passed with flying colors. Junior gives impromptu ball retrieving sessions to children we encounter on walks. He creates tension in dog classes held in small indoor settings by periodically spinning and barking if another dog comes to near. Penny a much more mellow girl seen by all as a sweetie and a real hit in classes, failed the test. She is more fearful and she ate the treat used to demonstrate she could leave it.
    I love your trainers definition of the ultimate goal of dog training. We have been busy focusing on obedience, agility and ball herding. Then I noticed our walks were awful because they were both pulling me all over and sometimes jerking leashes out of my hands to chase squirrels and other small skittering things. I got to thinking hard about that picture. Now that we are focussing on leash manners and not running at the plate glass window every time a mammal runs across the deck our real life is far better.
    Aren’t we all products of nature and nurture with some mystery factors thrown in?

  3. jessica says:

    what a great post. thank you for sharing.

  4. Pingback: Versatile Blogger Award | Mados

  5. Melissa Victoria says:

    Thanks for sharing. My pup used to be a solid 3 and is now a 2-3 depending on the day. I taught “Go say hi” (some how, by accident) and she runs up to strangers, wriggling her body with a helicopter tail, sniffs their feet and their walks away (on a 2 day) or begs for attention (on a 3). There are also people she has known for most of her life that she doesn’t enjoy interacting with (smokers, it seems, turn her off) and others she is obsessed with (ignoring vs sloppily making out with their ear). Training is definitely an ongoing process and I will be curious to see how she matures (she is 17 months now) with more training. My end goal is to create the most confident and healthy dog I can and to provide the best quality of life for her. It’s one thing to pass the obedience test and another to see them in action doing therapy work. We will see!

  6. TheRedQueen says:

    I got kicked off the K10 rescue facebook page last year for expressing my disbelief in the whole idea. Especially when a few of the litter died from various problems. The whole project was crazy and made me so angry.

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