What it takes to train a therapy dog

For Howard Magazine
Therapy dog training takes a lot of time and money, but handlers say the results are worth it.

It’s Wednesday night in Laurel, which means it’s class night at the one-story headquarters of Fidos for Freedom. There are no desks, no computers, no blackboards or screens in the large, mirrored room. Instead, it’s filled with about two dozen dogs and their handlers.

“Maintain eye contact with your dog,” urges instructor Fran Glavan, a retired school administrator and dog lover, as she has the dogs circle the room clockwise, then counter-clockwise. “Make sure they know you’re there. Tell them what good dogs they are.”

She soon halts the procession and has the handlers, two at a time, order their dogs to stay while the handlers walk to to the other end of the room and call their dogs. Most of the dogs handle the exercise with impressive ease, sitting quietly until called and then dashing eagerly across the room. But a few squirm and whine uncomfortably, and one won’t let her handler move more than a step or two away without following her.

“OK, we’re going to have to work on that,” Glavan says to the disappointed handler.

Glavan’s weekly class is one of a long list of mandatory classes, visits and tests required for therapy dogs, which provide furry, four-legged affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, schools and elsewhere. Training is time consuming and costly, but the human sides of these teams — hundreds of which call Howard County home — say it’s worth the trouble when they see the reactions their pets elicit.

Therapy dogs differ from service dogs, which are trained to assist people with a disability. They come in all shapes, sizes and ages, but they share a few things in common: a calm, gentle temperament; a love of people and an eagerness to please them; and, of course, hours and hours of training to make sure they do their job safely and well.

Most local teams are aligned with one of two nonprofits: Fidos for Freedom (which also trains service dogs) or the National Capital Therapy Dogs, based in Highland. Both organizations require repeated classes for the dogs and their handlers, before and after they are allowed to make visits. The last thing the organizations want, leaders say, is an untried, untested dog running loose in a classroom full of first-graders or a hospital ward filled with ailing patients.

“Our dogs don’t need to be obedience champions, but they have to be used to working with distractions,” explains Christy Shoup of North Laurel, a veterinarian and, with Glavan, co-director of training for Fidos for Freedom. “They need to be fine with a lot going on, and they need to be in control.”

Shari Sternberger, who, along with her husband Wayne, started National Capital Therapy Dogs about a quarter-century ago, calls it “a dance between the dog and the handler.”

“The dog needs to be wanting to be with the handler in a respectful way, and the handler has to make the dog happy and feel safe,” Sternberger says. “And, safety, safety, safety comes first.”

At Fidos for Freedom, testing for potential new therapy dogs is held twice a year. Dogs are assessed on such traits as how they handle being in an enclosed area, their reaction to a stranger’s approach and how they behave with other dogs. Dogs must then must prove adept at several exercises — heeling while on a leash, various timed stays and coming when called.

Next comes a two-hour handlers-only class to review the organization’s mission, regulations and expectations, followed by the handler and the dog together attending four training classes, such as Glavan’s Wednesday night class. Handlers attend two more classes without their dog, to observe experienced therapy dogs.

If the therapy teams make the cut (most do) and have the required veterinary checkups and shots, they are allowed to begin visiting clients at nearly a dozen facilities. Among them are the Athelas Institute, an adult day-care center in Columbia, Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis and Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore.

Dog teams must make at least eight visits a year and continue attending at least one training class a month.

National Capital Therapy Dogs has no headquarters and instead trains members at a variety of rented spaces, such as the Owen Brown Community Center. National Capital has more than 200 therapy teams and serves about 60 facilities in a broad region stretching from Baltimore to southern Virginia. Howard County facilities include Gilchrest Hospice Care in Columbia and several elementary schools.

While National Capital’s goal is the same as Fidos for Freedom’s — a well-trained, friendly dog able to deal calmly with potentially chaotic situations — the training is slightly different. To even begin training, dogs must pass the American Kennel Club’s 10-part Canine Good Citizen behavior test, which evaluates a dog’s ability to do simple tasks like sitting politely for petting and lying down on command.

After that, the organization requires a five-hour class for handlers only and a six-week training class for handlers and dogs. Each class is slightly different; in one, for example, volunteers pretend to be clients, using wheelchairs and walkers.

In the final week, the dogs are taken to the Columbia mall to meet and greet customers, a field trip that trainer Michelle Cohen of Columbia, calls “their first venture into the world.” That visit is followed by a final exam that includes mock visiting scenarios. If the dog passes (again, most do), the visits begin.

National Capital requires all dogs, no matter how many visits they’ve made, to attend at least one of the organization’s quarterly training sessions per year.

The trainers and handlers for Fidos for Freedom and for National Capital are volunteers, meaning they shoulder the financial burden of the training and keeping the dogs well-groomed and up-to-date with check-ups and shots.

But the human members of these teams are nothing if not dog-lovers and people-lovers, and without exception they say their visits make the task worth it.

“People just light up when they see the dogs and get to pet them,” says Cohen, who, with the latest of her series of five beagles, visits the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center or the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center once a week. “And, you get that feedback from the staff saying, ‘Oh, this person smiled for the first time when he saw your dog,’ that sort of thing. It’s wonderful.”

Fidos for Freedom handler Laurie Thompson of Ellicott City, a former teacher, participates in the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program at Laurel’s Bond Mill Elementary School with her Australian Shepherd, Allie.

“I remember this one little first-grader,” she says. “Every time we’d leave, he’d come up and give Allie this big smile and a big hug. It was just so heartwarming.” 

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