I’ve noticed that a lot of people say things like “Butch is so sweet. He could be a therapy dog”.
Everyone loves their German Shepherd, of course, they’re just great dogs. There are also many that are therapy dogs. But… does Butch really have the right temperament for a therapy dog?
Temperament is extremely important in therapy work. You can’t have a dog that freaks out about wheelchairs or loud noises. He or she can’t growl if a big black man in a hat is sitting in a room with a patient or if someone stumbles toward them and awkwardly pats their head.
The many situations that occur in therapy settings require an extremely steady temperament. Just because Butch is sweet to people that come to your house or who see him on a walk, doesn’t mean that it will translate to an unfamiliar setting.
So how do you know if your German Shepherd has the right temperament for therapy work?
Your best bet is to do a temperament test with someone who is certified to do it. GSDCA.org has a list of certified testers for German Shepherds. You can contact one in your area and find out when they will next be in an event.
This video is an example of a temperament test that would be done at an event:
Since tests can be few and far between, there are some trainers who know what to look for if you want to go that direction. Usually trainers who do CGC evaluations will have some idea of what to do.
Patricia McConnell, who is a renowned dog trainer, wrote this great little article that I think everyone considering therapy work with their German Shepherd should read called “Lending a Helping Paw: Is Your Dog a Good Fit for Therapy Duty?”. It’s not a temperament test, but it is very informative as far as what to watch out for in yourself and in your German Shepherd when you’re looking into therapy work.
If you would prefer to do the test yourself to see if it’s worth even getting into (understanding that it’s a starting point, not a be-all-end-all indication your dog should be a therapy dog), here’s a nice breakdown of a thorough test for you:
Testing Your German Shepherd’s Temperament
Things You Need
– Two people that your dog doesn’t know very well.
– A metal can full of pennies (and an area where someone can hide and shake it)
– An umbrella
– A balloon and a pin or a metal pan and a hard floor
– Access to a quiet, empty location
– Weird hat/hoodie
– An exercise-pen
– A notepad and pen
Explain to your helpers that you’re going to have them simulate strangers to your dog so you can see how your dog reacts. Tell them to take notes on how the dog responds during each exercise.
Hold your dog on a loose leash, always.
One indication that a dog is not taking a test well is a stress yawn. Dogs yawn when they’re uncomfortable and it’s an indication that they need some work done helping them see a situation positively.
First exercise (Neutral Stranger):
You and a helper walk toward each other. You have a short conversation. The helper ignores the dog. You say goodbye and pass on.
If your German Shepherd growls or acts at all aggressive or uncomfortable (hackles raised, intense staring and stiff legs, etc), your dog is not a good candidate for therapy work.
If your dog tries to jump all over the person and lick their face, they at least have a good demeanor, but you will definitely need to really work on obedience before you can go anywhere with it. The dog may be too hyper to be a good therapy dog… people in wheelchairs don’t generally want your dog jumping on their lap and face or whipping them with their tail.
If your German Shepherd backs away, cowers or in other ways acts frightened, this would be a fearful response and indicates weak nerves – not suitable for therapy either.
Perfect response would be a dog that calmly observes the stranger or shows calm interest, but doesn’t jump, demand attention or act aggressive.
Second exercise (Friendly Stranger):
You and a helper walk toward each other. You shake hands. The helper might touch your hair or upper arm briefly as you talk. The helper pets the dog. You say goodbye and continue walking opposite directions.
Similar as above, except the dog should respond to petting in a happy (wagging tail calmly, soliciting more petting) but not extremely excited bouncy, wiggly manner… again, any ducking of the head, snapping or other fear/aggressive acts are no good. A German Shepherd that is only mildly interested in the petting is ok as well, but if they ignore the person petting entirely or seem uncomfortable, then your dog is likely not going to be very therapeutic.
Third exercise (Sharp Noise Responsiveness):
This is done using either the balloon or the pot. The pot is dropped sharply on hard ground or the balloon is popped, both close enough to the dog to be startling, but not close enough that the dog thinks something was thrown at her – at least 4 feet away.
If your German Shepherd cringes in fear, tries to run away, pees on the ground, or anything similar, they should not be considered for therapy work. Their noise sensitivity is too high.
A better response is a dog that startles (maybe jumps a bit, or turns quickly to look at the object) but doesn’t act fearful and recovers quickly. If they want to happily (not aggressively) investigate the source of the noise, that’s even better.
Some dogs will indicate they heard the noise with a turned ear or something similar, but will ignore it and continue merrily on their way. They either have nerves of steel, or a hearing problem. Make sure to get their ears checked out, but otherwise you have a dog with very low noise sensitivity and that’s very rare, but awesome.
Fourth Exercise (Continued Weird Loud Noise Responsiveness):
Have your helper take the can of pennies around a corner and shake it loudly. As soon as the can begins making noise, your German Shepherd can be allowed to investigate the noise and has 20 seconds to examine the can being shaken. You can encourage her with “Find it!” or “Where is it?” or similar.
As above, except you do want them to investigate the noise when you tell them to (though ignoring it is fine too).
This can also trigger an aggressive growling or fearful barking or backing away, which is undesirable.
Fifth exercise (Body Sensitivity):
Begin by having a helper come over and letting the dog smell their hand. They can then pet the dog under the chin, stroke them over the muzzle, head and back, pet down their tail. Then have them gently run their hands down the dogs sides and legs, down the chest and the abdomen and then picking up each foot in turn.
If the dog responds positively to this (see below), if you feel it is safe and you’re willing to take responsibility for the possibility of a dog bite, the person can squeeze the webbing in between the toes – hard enough to make the dog yelp or pull away their foot.
If your German Shepherd responds to the touch by growling or tensing up at any point in the process, you do not have a therapy dog on your hands. Don’t even try pinching.
Similarly, a dog that cowers, pees, pulls away, yawns loudly/repeatedly or snaps is fearful and not a good candidate. When pinched, this type of dog could bite and/or acts fearful/aggressive toward the person who hurt them and stays away. They won’t come back and try to make up with the person who hurt them.
A dog that responds exuberantly by jumping, nipping, licking and throwing themselves around is not the best candidate either. They aren’t dangerous, but there would be a lot of work needed to get them to reign in their enthusiasm and it may not be enough to make them appropriate therapy dogs… (or maybe they just have some growing up to do).
The ideal dog responds with calm, happy demeanor. Wagging tail, maybe soliciting more petting with gentle nudging, etc. When pinched, they either pull away their paw silently, or yelp (even backing away for a second), but they quickly forgive and come back for petting and love.
Sixth Exercise (Reaction to Visual Stimulus):
Have your helper sit on the ground or in a chair with the closed umbrella. As you walk toward the helper, when you are 3′ away from the tip of the umbrella (no closer), the helper should quickly open the umbrella with the tip pointed toward the dog. They then drop the tip of the umbrella to the ground and your German Shepherd is encouraged to approach the umbrella.
A dog that starts barking, growling or attacking the umbrella will be too aggressive for therapy work.
A dog that jumps away, can’t be made to investigate, runs and hides or pees is too fearful.
Your ideal German Shepherd will startle (jump or similar) or just prick their ears forward in interest but then quickly go forward to investigate the umbrella or ignore the umbrella completely.
Seventh Exercise (Texture sensitivity):
During this one, you’ll lay out something with odd texture on it, flat on the ground – preferably an exercise pen coated in plastic. You then walk your dog on top of the pen (because this feels weird on their feet).
A dog that will walk on the pen the whole way is least sensitive. This is good because when you’re walking around on different floor surfaces, you don’t want your dog to back away from a floor that looks or feels different.
A dog that walks on it for a bit, but then jumps off is less desirable.
A dog that touches it and then won’t touch it again or balks and backs away is too sensitive.
Eighth Exercise (Weird Strangers):
Your German Shepherd is going to come in contact with many different people who will act and look weird. Alzheimer’s or mentally unstable patients may act inappropriately toward your dog, screaming or talking loudly. People with disabilities will be in wheelchairs or they may walk funny.
Your dog cannot react defensively to any of these people. This is a tough one, because many German Shepherds will react to weird people defensively.
The exercise is best if you can use various medical equipment (wheelchair, crutches, etc) to simulate hospital people. You can also have someone wearing a weird outfit, like a hoodie with the hood up, or a hat pulled down low.
One at a time, have your helpers approach as various caricatures. Maybe a person with a hoodie that acts drunk. Maybe a slinking, suspicious ball cap wearer. Maybe someone in a wheelchair yelling loudly and gesturing weirdly. Feel free to reward your dog for good responses.
A good therapy dog will not care if these people have clown wigs and are crawling on the ground toward them while talking to themselves.
A good dog will be happy to see any of these people, no matter how oddly they act. If you have a dog that reacts defensively or is frightened, you’re not going to want to use them as a therapy dog.
In any therapy situation, there are unknowns. Kids could step on your dog’s toes or grab their ears. They might run around shrieking. An Alzheimer’s patient might get worked up. Your dog has to be bombproof in regards to weird people.
And so, that’s a starting point for determining whether or not your German Shepherd has potential for therapy. Some of these things can be worked on, but generally it’s best if your dog has the ideal reaction for every item in the first place. It’s a lot of work to train a dog to not be fearful or aggressive and there is always the chance that they can regress and you can have a problem on your hands.