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Apr. 06, 2011

The Wally Diaries: Training a Therapy Dog

by Ally Ruchman

By Ally Ruchman, Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School

I knew that training Wally would be quite the challenge the day he soared about three feet in the air and snatched a burger out of a man’s hand. One bite…it was gone. Beagles are instinctively driven by their noses and they love to eat. They are easily distracted by smells, so training Wally was difficult at times. Each breed has its own idiosyncrasies, and this makes training unique for each dog.

A friend recommended a wonderful training school in Howell, N. J. The owner told me that Wally needed to take a basic obedience class before he could tackle their therapy training class. He needed to know his commands perfectly in order to progress with therapy training. So we enrolled in basic training. The class was a United Nations of dogs — every breed, every size, every language. Fortunately, all twenty-two spoke DOG.

Everyone was accepted into basic obedience and everyone except for one dog graduated. We all worked hard for eight weeks. I felt enormous pressure to succeed. Everyone noticed if you knew your homework and practiced. Those who failed to master a task were teased by the trainer. When it happened to me, I was embarrassed. It made me work harder. Some days, Wally was just plain old stubborn and wanted to be social and howl at everyone. During these moments, I had to leave class and go outside with Wally.

The secret to success in dog training is practice, practice, and more practice. I learned to be firm and consistent. Dogs understand repetition…actually they like it. Once you let a dog do as he wishes, anything can happen. Like the time I told Wally to sit in the car. He sat in the passenger seat. After a few minutes, he decided to sit on the floor. I didn’t correct him. Soon, he was sitting on the gas pedal and we lurched forward at high speed.

After basic obedience, I segued into therapy training class. There were seven of us. The trainer always told us, “No mistakes in this business. You’re often dealing with the sick and needy.” Somehow, Wally picked up on the seriousness of this class. He was amazing. Always avoiding booby traps, like pills and food on the ground, wheelchairs, and balloons. I always came fully equipped with treats to distract him. Treats are great rewards. We practiced every day, and often twice daily. We were trained to be able to work in a variety of places: hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, and schools.

One of the coolest parts of the program was when representatives from many organizations came to our class to inform us about opportunities for our dogs after graduation. It was wonderful to meet so many people who encouraged us to consider new options for therapy dogs. I knew that I wanted to work in a hospital setting, but I also realized that I wanted to take Wally to the library and perhaps a school. I also learned that as a teenager, I could eventually become a captain of a facility if I worked hard. I could run a therapy dog program. This was music to my ears…and Wally’s too.

[Editor's note: Learn how Ally and Wally got started on their journey in the first installment of the Wally Diaries]

_______________________
Ally Ruchman is a junior at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School in Rumson, NJ. She loves animals, reading, science, and traveling.

About Ally Ruchman

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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