Raising and Training a Therapy Dog: Your Guide For The Twin Cities

Therapy Dog Training, Minneapolis, Edina, Minnetonka, Bloomington, Richfield

Looking to raise a therapy dog in Minneapolis? We got you.

We’re here to spill all you need to know about raising and training the perfect therapy dog. There’s a lot of information out there, so we’ve compiled a handy dandy therapy dog FAQ just for you. We are THE people for teaching real-world obedience and stellar social skills, so take it from us! We’ll get ya on the right track.

So tell me… what exactly is a therapy dog?

Think of therapy dogs as little rays of sunshine on four legs. It’s their job to provide comfort, support, and affection to the people who need it most. You’ll find therapy dogs visiting residents in nursing homes, cheering up hospital patients, helping school children learn to read, and even calming passengers in busy airports. Therapy dogs have been specially trained to interact with a wide variety of people and are able to “go with the flow” in many demanding situations. Not only do people love interacting with therapy dogs, but the therapy dogs love interacting with people too!

How do I choose the right dog for therapy work?

The #1 most important thing to consider when choosing a therapy dog candidate is temperament. Therapy dogs must love people, and they must be taught amazing social skills to successfully navigate all that the therapeutic lifestyle throws at them. Breeds such as golden retrievers, labs, poodles, and doodles often make fantastic therapy dogs, but there are plenty of mixed breeds who are equally awesome.

Genetics play a big role here. Different breeds have different traits, but it’s not just about finding the right breed or pedigree. Puppies born to stressed moms are more likely to become anxious adults. Puppies who have experienced trauma or a lack of positive early socialization experiences are less likely to be outgoing and friendly. There will always be exceptions to the norm, but you’ll get the best shot at a successful therapy dog if you:

1. Choose a breed (or mix of breeds) that is known for an outgoing, friendly personality. Watch out for euphemisms such as “aloof” “stubborn” “single-person dogs” or “watch dogs” when learning about breeds. This usually means they aren’t social butterflies.

  1. Choose a puppy from a happy home with happy, healthy parents who are also outgoing and friendly. The best homes raise their puppies as part of the family, and take care to nurture social and emotional wellbeing just as much as physical wellbeing. Lately we’ve seen a surge in awesome foster homes who provide amazing starts for their puppies, and we couldn’t be happier!
  2. Get started ASAP. Puppies begin learning at birth, and it’s critical that their first impressions of the world are positive ones. Learning how to properly manage normal puppy naughties and establish a trusting relationship is crucial. Those early experiences can make or break a therapy dog! 

Where do I start? Are there therapy dog training programs in Minneapolis?

Not to toot our own horn or anything, but… well. Toot toot! The Go Anywhere Dog program is a match made in heaven for aspiring therapy teams. Therapy dogs need reliable obedience skills built on a foundation of impeccable social skills, and that is exactly what we do best! Training your pup to take on therapy work is a big task, but our puppy training curriculum breaks down the foundational skills into fun, manageable steps. We’ve got your back every step of the way! As you progress through the levels, our instruction grows with your puppy; the more your pup matures, the more we can ask of him. By taking your dog’s developmental readiness into account, training remains fun and your pup’s happiness & zest for life is preserved.

The Go Anywhere Dog program is designed to start your new puppy on the best puppy training path for becoming a therapy dog. A therapy dog needs both stellar social skills and obedience skills.  That’s our specialty through and through.  It will take some legwork and perseverance to raise a puppy for a therapy dog role, but we ensure loads of fun for both you and puppy for the full journey. The journey begins with mindful puppy socialization and teaching skills when your puppy is developmentally ready.  You can choose to begin with our puppy classes if your puppy is under 16 weeks old. If your dog is over 16 weeks old, you’ll begin with Life Skills 101 Dog Training Class. If you prefer a more customized 1:1 approach, we offer an In home Puppy Training Program or a Private Dog Training Program where our Dog Life Coaches will come to your home for training. Our in home puppy training and in home dog training services are offered in Minneapolis, Edina, Minnetonka, Richfield, Hopkins, St. Louis Park, Bloomington and Eagan, MN.

How long does it take to train a therapy dog?

We’ll give it to you straight: it depends. The time it takes to train a therapy dog varies depending upon the dog’s age, previous training, and individual skill levels. If you start as soon as you bring your puppy home, plan to train your way through that entire first year. If you’re just starting your journey with your adult dog, well… that really depends! If your dog is already superbly socialized and has great, reliable obedience, you might get there over the course of several months. If your dog has a few quirks to work through, plan on training for longer. And if your dog just isn’t a great fit for therapy work? Well, it’s just not in the cards. While each dog is different, there is one thing that all therapy dogs have in common: their training took lots of time, practice, and dedication! Raising a therapy dog isn’t easy, but the final outcome is so rewarding!

What skills does my dog need to become a therapy dog?

In addition to classic obedience skills like sit, stay, and leash manners, therapy dogs need rock solid confidence and people skills. The demands placed on a working therapy dog can be quite intense! Good therapy dogs feel comfortable in a plethora of different environments and happily interact with a wide variety of people. Therapy dogs must be able to roll with the punches and not become fearful or overly excited when presented with unpredictable stimuli.  All of this is achieved through training techniques that foster a feeling of safety in the world and a deep connection between human and dog.

Although the exact therapy dog test requirements vary slightly from organization to organization, all dogs are evaluated based on:

Personality and temperament. Therapy dogs should be friendly and extroverted. They’ve gotta like going to work!

Manners. Therapy dogs mustn’t jump up, bark, excessively lick, etc. (Be careful how you handle these behaviors! It’s easy to “ruin” a good therapy dog candidate by accidentally mishandling these run-of-the-mill naughty puppy behaviors.)

Obedience skills. Therapy dogs must have reliable basic obedience skills – even amongst distractions. The exact skills required may vary, but typically include sit, stay, leave-it, and loose leash walking.

Confidence & comfort level. Therapy dogs should move through the world around them with ease. They should be comfortable being handled by unfamiliar individuals, and stay calm and focused in stressful situations. They should not be phased by medical equipment, children, erratic behavior, or other animals.

Once your dog can check all of those boxes, he’s ready to get to work providing comfort, support, and love to those in need. Good dog!

Got any pointers for aspiring therapy dog raisers?

We sure do! Here’s the biggest piece of advice we can give to anyone hoping to raise a therapy dog: love your dog. Love your dog deeply, with no remorse! From the moment you take your puppy home, he’s learning from you. Every interaction, no matter how small, is influencing your puppy’s view of the world. Rescue your puppy from scary situations. Understand and meet your puppy’s unique social, emotional, and physical needs. Take special care to ensure that your reactions to typical naughty behaviors are developmentally appropriate – it’s all too easy to unintentionally kill a puppy’s joie de vivre! 

Most people know that socialization is critical for therapy dogs, but we can’t stress it enough: Beef up those social skills! Start ASAP. Be organized. Make a list. It’s easy to miss out on socialization opportunities if you aren’t checking your progress and actively seeking out new stimuli. Expose your puppy to wheelchairs, walkers, bikes, and scooters. Seek out noisy environments and practice walking across different surfaces. Hand out treats like it’s Halloween, and engage in play in different environments to show your pup how AWESOME the world is. 

There’s one thing that people always miss: kids. Kids are loud, flappy, and unpredictable. They fall down a lot. They move differently than adults. They smell weird. They cry. Kids are A LOT for a dog to deal with, and they can be pretty spooky!

Oh, and one last thing: don’t just throw your puppy into the deep end! Work within your puppy’s comfort zone. If he’s showing signs of fear or discomfort, something’s gotta change. Be his hero. Get him out of dodge and reassure him.  Improper socialization techniques can be just as bad or worse than no socialization at all! We recommend working under the guidance of a trainer, especially if this is your first time raising a therapy dog. If you’re in classes with Go Anywhere Dog, pay close attention to your instructor and read all of the emails we send out. We’ll keep ya on the right path!

Are there any therapy dog certification organizations in Minneapolis?

Yah you betcha! We love our city and all of the awesome opportunities here. We typically refer our clients to Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs International for therapy dog certification. Their programs provide evaluation and registration, ensuring you and your furry companion meet the standards required for therapy work. Once they give you the green light, your dog is an official therapy dog. Wahoo!

Is there a minimum age requirement for therapy dogs?

Technically, no. There is no strict age requirement. In reality, therapy dogs must have reached a certain level of maturity and training before they’re able to pass the evaluation and participate in therapy work. Most dogs begin their formal therapy dog journey around 1-3 years old. We’ve found that by this age, most dogs have developed the necessary social skills, obedience training, and maturity to handle the vigor of therapy work. However, keep in mind that every dog is unique! Many factors affect when your dog will be ready for therapy work, including breed, temperament, and training intensity. We recommend working closely with a professional trainer to ensure smooth, steady progress. Don’t be tempted to rush through the process or push your dog past his limits. Instead, work at your dog’s pace and keep training fun. The awesome results you’ll get will be worth the wait. Promise!

Where are therapy dogs needed in Minneapolis?

There are SO many different opportunities for therapy dogs to work in the area. Locally, therapy dogs can be found in nursing homes, libraries, schools, hospitals, and even the MSP airport. There are therapy dogs who soothe vulnerable victims during court proceedings. There are therapy dogs who comfort grieving loved ones in funereal homes. Colleges and universities are known to bring in therapy dogs during stressful exam weeks. Sometimes private companies even bring in therapy dogs to help employees destress. We’ve always known that dogs make the world a better place, and Minneapolis really proves that! If you and your therapy dog are looking for places to volunteer, just ask around! You can also contact your certifying agency about volunteer opportunities.

Ready to make the world a better place? Come join us!

We know raising a therapy dog is lots of work, but we can’t think of anything more rewarding than the smiles, hugs, and laughter your pup will provoke. Grab your treat pouches, train hard, have fun, and most of all… love your dog! We can’t wait to see you and your awesome therapy dog making Minneapolis an even better place to live.

How can we help?

We’d love to help you along the way on your therapy dog training journey.

We’ve got a wide variety of offerings that fall into five main categories:

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