Therapy Dogs – not so fast folks. please.


Over the last 30+ years, the Portuguese Water Dog has gained increasing interest by people in being a therapy dog.

In fact, here is one of my dogs, known as Salli (aka The Dude, “Bluegrace Eastern Advantage” a multi generation Bluegrace dog) who lives in Finland, trained by the brilliant Mia Kontkanen, who has limited and highly supervised time with the elderly. (he works better with them than children).


And it is wonderful to report that there are several Portuguese Water Dogs in successful jobs as therapy dogs across a range of functions.


This is so important, it deserves its own paragraph:

There appears to be a mis-understanding in some circles that “wishing a dog as a therapy dog” equals “having a dog with instant suitability” for this role. And wishing hard enough also means, apparently, that the human automatically has attained all the knowledge and skills that could need, and hence acquisition of a dog is an immediate need.

I have been contact many, many times for a dog to be used as a therapy dog.

90% of the time, the person wanting the dog had none, or not nearly enough skills to take on this responsibility.

Training a dog requires a lot of skill, time, and money, and a puppy with the right temperament.

Requests we have received include:

* therapy dog for hospital visits
* a “guide dog” for a blind Portuguese Water Dog – the owner had read on the internet that dogs would naturally become a guide dog for a blind dog. This is a totally incorrect assumption.
* needing a dog to reduce the anxiety of a special needs child
* needing a dog to help the general needs of an autistic child
* someone wanting to establish a not for profit organization breeding therapy dogs and wanting our dogs.


Then of course, there are the individuals, breeders, and organisations who will give dogs as a whole the most fantastic set of characteristics which will certainly (apparently!) alleviate some/most/all of your child’s special needs. More often than not, I’m seeing these wild claims made on doodle breeders websites. You are far less likely to find them on the website of a purebred breeder’s page because we’re not allowed to make stuff up. Yes the penalties can be quite high. But not if you are breeding without a registered code of ethics and rules. When you see a breeder advertising not just one puppy as a possible therapy dog, but every single dog she has ever bred and will breed as a therapy dog – run away as quickly as you can. There are scammers everywhere hoping to separate you from your money very quickly, and will say whatever they need to, to get you to give them money. Yes, even puppy breeders. (and you’ll notice on this website and frank I am about issues and considerations.)

But back to where we were….

I’m going to be frank now:

I have been absolutely blown over with the lack of canine understanding combined with the lack of knowledge of children/special needs situations that people come to me with. This is the equivalent of wanting to be an Olympian after having read a couple of books about running.

In addition, I have watched parents with children let the children hit my dogs, tug at their hair, poke them in the stomach, yank them on lead, without any attempt at intervening by the parents. Mind you, that has been with parents both with and not with special needs children.

I have given adults specific instructions to not go into a dog yard to turn around and find them belting the dogs with their handbags after going into an area they were specifically told not to enter. You can’t make this stuff up.

When these scenarios happen, as you can imagine, those people are asked to leave immediately.

If you find a breeder that seems a little terse, maybe even difficult to deal with, I want you to assume that they have seen a lot of inappropriate things take place. The stories I could tell you would keep you on the edge of your seat for hours.

And the expectation is that a breeder not only breeds perfect dogs that need no training, that will be specifically perfect for your individual situation, along with a breeder that is both a child therapist, human therapist, marriage counsellor, vet, who produces dogs that will live forever and never have a health problem…. and people wonder why there are less and less people wanting to breed excellent dogs.

Therefore, if you want a therapy dog here are the steps:

1. come to me with a plan of how this will work
2. ensure everyone in your family wants a working dog
3. be able to clearly elucidate exactly how a Portuguese water dog will be useful in your specific situation
4. tell me who you have engaged to train you with the dog

In addition, talk to me about your vast dog experience, and ask me lots of questions. I’ve had people think that asking questions goes like this, “kids (aged 6 or under) what questions do you have for Jane?”

So far, no one who has wanted a therapy dog in the last 10 years has done any of the above steps. If you can’t do these 4 steps, you certainly are not ready in the slightest for the workload involved in having a therapy dog. Yes it is an incredible amount of work. A therapy dog does not train itself.

I’m not trying to be mean, but the vast majority of people that approach me with this scenario are wasting their own time and that of every dog breeder they talk with, without even coming close to doing adequate research or understanding how difficult this will be.

And alas, as much as it pains me to report, not only are most people completely ill equipped at this point to be seeking a dog for therapy work, it turns out that one or all of their kids is not suitable for any breed (for a range of reasons) and sometimes the partner is dead against it. Do I really need to say this – unless your partner is your biggest raving fan and thinks this idea is super, do not take another step forward in this direction.

There is no white picket fence with a therapy dog just waiting for you, regardless of how much time you spend wishing for such.

That being said, you could well find a breeder who tells you “oh yes no problem, these dogs make excellent therapy dogs” and just sell you one. But don’t come to me and say “I really want one from you, but you need to be able to tell me what that other breeder said.” (yes that’s happened. More than once.)

On a final note, not only do I sometimes get a ridiculously long list of things that the dog must be able to do (um… how am I supposed to evaluate that in a young puppy?) then it’s often finished up with requests for coat type, gender, and colour. So firstly you were after a 1 in 500 puppy, and now you’re after a 1 in 5000 puppy? And you probably want a discount too because, you know, “therapy”. And then tell me at the last minute that it will also need to get on with your cat, goat, rabbit, and chooks.

And this is before we’ve got to the discussion about “service dogs” who are a whole new level of skill.

Don’t make me the bad guy here because I’m the only one who is going to tell you the cold hard reality.

But once you have done all the work, I’m more than happy to sit down and sing kum-by-yah with you and your extremely well trained dog that you have trained. And had accredited. And is insured for such.

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