It takes a special kind of dog to be both good at therapy work and to enjoy it. Before you take that big step of purchasing or adopting a dog for a potential therapy partner, there are several things to consider. One of the first considerations is you and your family. This dog will be with you and your family for anywhere between 10-18 years, so it is extremely important that your dog is a good fit for you and your family's lifestyle. You must also consider what type of therapy work you are interested in doing with your dog. Animal Assisted Activities and Animal Assisted Therapy may require different things from a dog, so it is vital to think this aspect through carefully.
VanFleet & Faa-Thompson (2017) suggest creating a list of the characteristics you would like in a dog before you consider anything else. This list can include things such as the dog being good with kids, physically calm, or being good at agility. You can also include characteristics that you do not want such as a large or protective dog. You will then need to combine your dog characteristics list with your family lifestyle list. Incorporate things like the energy level of your family, and how other pets in the family will adjust. There is also the necessary time required for grooming, training and socializing your new dog.
Should you go to a breeder? The answer to that is "it depends." There is no one breed of dog that is specific for therapy work. Specific breeds will give you some breed specific characteristics, such as energy level or temperament, however; each specific dog within that breed will have differing personalities. Those individual features of the dog that make up their personality are extremely important in therapy work (vanFleet & Faa-Thompson, 2017). For more informaiton, go to the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) web page under "Choosing a dog" for questions such as breed standards and temperament. If you choose a pedigree puppy, a reputable breeder can watch for specific personality traits in a puppy that will make a good therapy dog prospect.
Rescuing a dog from the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) or a rescue group can be rewarding, not only for you but also for the dog. You may even find a pedigree dog with specific characteristics for which you are looking. Unless you are getting a rescue puppy, one of the unknowns will be the dogs socialization history. Special attention is needed to any possible triggers of reactive behaviour as a result of poor socialization. If you are unsure about your potential rescue dog being a good candidate for therapy work, consult a dog trainer to assess the dog prior to adopting. The SPCA and the rescue group staff will also be able to provide information on the dog since that dog came into their care. Be sure to ask about the dog's strengths, needs and/or problematic behaviours.
Designer dogs are cross breed dogs that are not registered by the CKC. Labradoodles, for example, were first bred from Labrador Retrievers (which are common guide dogs) and Poodles (with a low-shed coat) to be hypoallergenic service dogs (Time USA, 2020). Dander, which is attached to pet hair, is what causes most pet allergies in humans and while there are no 100% hypoallergenic dogs, there are many breeds that do well with allergy sufferers (AKC, 2020). Pedigree dogs who have a non-shedding coat, such as the Poodle, will produce less dander. However, they do give off some dander so an allergic reaction in a human is still possible. When a Poodle is crossed with a Labrador Retriever for example, you cannot be 100% certain if that low dander trait will be passed on. So your designer dog may still produce a significant amount of dander that has the potential to cause an allergic reaction. You also cannot be certain if the kindly disposition of the Labrador Retriever will be passed on to the Labradoodle pup.
Overall, good therapy dogs need to be the kind of dogs that adore people, all people, and want nothing more than to connect with them (McConnell, 2002). Being psychologically sound and non-reactive are other important qualities. It doesn't matter how much training or conditioning you do, McConnell (2002) says that therapy dogs need a certain level of rock-solid soundness to be good prospects.
No therapy dog is complete without a partner that understands their language. If you plan to engage in any sort of therapy work with the dog that you purchase or adopt, you need to study canine language and behaviour. In the end, you are their voice in therapy sessions, please use it well.
Lisa Wade MSW, RSW