If you were to ask my one-year-old yellow Labrador retriever what he wanted to be when he grew up—assuming he could talk—he would tell you he wants to be a therapy dog. Nothing makes Cooper as happy as people do. He loves to fetch, food, and, of course, water, but most of all, making people happy. While it is safe to say that I may be attributing human behavior to a dog, or talking quite overconfidently about Cooper’s hopes and dreams for his future, I am certain that my dog truly does draw a sense of joy from making people smile.

From puppyhood, when we first noticed Cooper’s love for people, unwavering loyalty, and motivation to please, we knew we wanted to try our hand at volunteer therapy dog work. Therapy dogs have jobs that make a difference in our community. From hospitals and nursing homes to schools, these dogs touch people in a way that other humans may not be able to by providing unconditional love and a sense of comfort to those in need—whether it be an elderly person in a nursing home; a child struggling with building the confidence to read aloud to their peers; or a college student enduring the stress of finals. I should mention that therapy dogs are commonly confused with service dogs. These two working dogs vary in that service dogs are specifically trained to perform tasks that are of assistance to a person who is living with a disability, such as blindness, seizures, or psychiatric disorders.

Goal #1: Improve Confidence

Cooper has always been skittish in nature and rather unsure of himself. Despite early training in confidence and exposure to many new experiences, Cooper has a seemingly innate fear of manmade structures and surfaces. Stairs, jumping into the car, and slippery surfaces, such as tile or hardwood floor, have been big hurdles for Cooper. These fears not only make training very challenging but also hold Cooper back from a life free of anxiety.

Working with my dog to improve his confidence and overall quality of life has been beneficial for the both of us. This experience handling a very nervous, large dog has taught me both patience and perseverance. It can be frustrating, to say the least, when an animal that weighs nearly as much as you do, with five times your strength and stubbornness, is pulling you in the opposite direction as you try to convince him to do what you know he is physically capable of. Through working with Cooper, I’ve found the key to calming his anxiety and encouraging cooperation is a combination of patience and understanding with no shortage of persistence or your own sense of confidence and self-assuredness.

As a future therapy dog, slippery surfaces, stairs, elevators, and large buildings will be challenges Cooper would encounter frequently. As a student in the Animal Science Department at the Ohio State University, I’m able to utilize a few of our campus’ buildings as training opportunities for Cooper. We’ve first focused our attention on working in stairwells. The buildings on campus have large, open stairwells and, inside, every noise echoes—an intimidating environment for a nervous dog. Because Cooper is extremely play motivated, I use a tug toy scented with pheasant as reward. I’ve found that rewarding his drive to play is enough to encourage his progress. Also, Cooper tends to carry his toys as a coping mechanism (we call him his “babies”) as they seem to provide him a sense of security and comfort.

Our Training Strategy

Following the advice and opinions of numerous professional dog trainers, Cooper and I have tried a number of different techniques before arriving at one that has worked best for us. I want to mention that our way is certainly not the only way and it may not be the best method for you or your dog. You’ll certainly want to consult a professional to determine the training method most appropriate for your dog.  Dog trainers would refer to our chosen method of training as desensitization or counter-conditioning; not to be confused with Exposure or Implosion therapy, a method commonly called “flooding.” The ASPCA provides a great, in-depth explanation of both desensitization and counterconditioning that you can review here.

When Cooper halts at the bottom of a staircase, I simply turn around and walk opposite the way I came, taking a quick breath before re-approaching the staircase. Turning away from the staircase, for Cooper, is like pressing a “reset” button, distracting him from his fear before allowing him to face it once again more confidently. Each time we do this, Cooper’s confidence grows as he becomes more comfortable encountering the source of his anxiety. In working with Cooper, I stand behind him or next to him. I encourage him gently to make more and more progress each time we walk away and come back to the staircase.

Managing Expectations

Keeping my expectations in check is an important step in making progress in Cooper’s training. Some days, we’ll only get half way up a staircase and back down again before its time to call it quits to prevent pushing him too hard or too far.

Yesterday was a particularly challenging day for Cooper. He was struggling with anxiety associated with walking across the hard wood floor in our apartment. Just last night, I sat with Cooper for over an hour in the small, slippery hallway that connects our bedrooms. I waited quietly with him on the floor until he was completely comfortable and relaxed before I opened the door to allow him on the bedroom carpet. By this time, he was on the verge of falling asleep on the floor! He left the hallway so happily with wagging tail and calm, relaxed posture. This is the experience I want Cooper to remember the next time he encounters that scary floor, not being stressed or panicked. Stressing Cooper or forcing him to dwell in his anxiety until he feels “helpless” is not a part of our training—only encouragement and confidence building. Whether it’s one paw on the first step of a staircase, or two steps up and back down again, we take “puppy steps” as I challenge his brain to move past his anxiety. Most importantly, we celebrate every accomplishment, no matter how small it may seem!

Follow Cooper’s journey to become a therapy dog in our Behavior & Training series- Overcoming Fears in “Puppy” Steps! We’ll be sharing both our challenges and triumphs as we work to overcome Cooper’s fears and create smiles as a volunteer therapy team. –Ashlee Marand

Ashlee Marand is a fourth year student at The Ohio State University. With an Animal Science major and Bioscience minor, Ashlee is striving to embrace her “right brain” through writing, a hobby that brings her great joy. Interested to read more? Sniff out her site at labandlab.wordpress.com.

Photo of Cooper by Ashlee Marand