Is Therapy Work Right for You And Your Mastiff?

Have you considered doing therapy work with your mastiff? Ever wonder why some dogs, as well as some people, are better suited for this kind of work than others?

This article is meant to help give you a little insight and possibly a better perspective on whether or not you and your dog would enjoy pursuing this ‘career’.  Hopefully, it will enable you to see the picture of therapy work more clearly.

Raising mastiffs for over eleven years (and doing therapy work for almost ten of those years) has given me a bit of insight into the mastiff persona and temperament.

What makes a good therapy dog?  What makes a good therapy dog owner?

Although all of the dogs we own would be kind and well behaved in a nursing home, all would not necessarily enjoy being there, and all are not necessarily ‘cut out’ for it.  Of the nine we have raised, only three are naturally suited for this kind of work.  Uther, his daughter Cara, and her daughter Lilith, were born to do therapy work.  Sometimes, I think I may have been, also.

From the very beginning (12 months), Uther loved visiting schools, nursing homes, hospitals, etc.  He was a part of the ‘petting zoo’ at our veterinarian clinic every single year, as part of their celebration of National Pet Week.  He was in an enclosure with adult and baby animals of all kinds, who were petted and loved by the children who came to visit. There were ducks, rabbits, goats, sheep, kittens and puppies in the enclosure with him.

We were regular visitors at one elementary school, and Uther was Mudge at every visit. The teacher would read one of the Henry and Mudge books to her class, and Uther and I would participate.  In the upper grades, the students would read their reports on the Old English Mastiff aloud to the rest of the class.  The report was a must to do before Uther could come.  In other schools we gave talks to the children on dog safety and the importance of good veterinary care.  And, we answered all the usual questions that children ask about Mastiffs.

At nursing homes, his great head would rest quietly on the beds of the patients. There, he would be patted and loved.  I found it truly amazing how much a gentle dog could actually bring back to the elderly who were suffering from Alzheimer’s. If they had been a dog lover in years past, sometimes the mere sight and touch (and even the smell) of a friendly dog brought back memories.  Mostly, comfort and happiness were recalled from days long gone by.   Uther exuded love and gentleness to everyone who came in contact with him, and the patients eagerly awaited his weekly visits.

Thursday’s were his very favorite days. Thursday was NURSING HOME day!  He knew every week when that day rolled around that he would have fun.  He became very familiar with the routine, and after awhile, he was trusted off lead to visit on his own with the Activities Coordinator and myself following behind.  Being a wee bit single minded at times, he would occasionally ‘do his own thing’.  He would trot down the hall, completely bypass at least six rooms, and make a sharp turn to the left.  We were always in hot pursuit.   From the hallway, we could hear Mrs. Miller laughing and talking.  It was Uther Day, and every week, she saved him something from her lunch tray.  Sometimes, it would be half a hamburger, sometimes, a piece of meatloaf, and sometimes, it was a Twinkie.  He was no dummy.  He knew where the best room was located.  I usually never give junk food to our dogs (well, maybe just on birthdays and Christmas), but on an occasional Thursday, a Twinkie was allowed. This simple act not only brought sheer joy to Mrs. Miller and Uther, but also to the Activities Coordinator, the nursing staff, some of the patients and myself.  He always ‘brought the house down’ with that ploy.  Laughter is always such a wonderful thing, and Mrs. Miller could not wait for his visits.  By the time we entered her room, he had eaten his snack, she had wiped his mouth, and they were having a perfectly wonderful visit.  I should mention the ‘Drool Factor’ here.  ALWAYS take a slobber towel when you go!   Of course, we always doubled back to visit the patients he had passed by.  It wasn’t just the Twinkies.  He loved his special people, and they loved him.   Over time, he had become best friends with many of them.

Cara was about a year old when we planned to visit one of our ‘regular’ schools. Since this visit was to be in the upper grades, where the noise level would be minimal, I asked the teacher ahead of time if I could bring her.  I mentioned that I thought she would be a good candidate for therapy work, and I wanted to see if this might be something she would enjoy.  She had a very stable, gentle disposition. She had been socialized a lot, had already earned her championship, and had visited a nursing home as a baby.  Cara had always responded to new people and new situations very calmly.

Off we went to school.  I had explained to the teachers and the students that this was Cara’s first trip out in a therapy type situation, and I wanted it to be a very positive experience for her.   They understood, and Cara had a wonderful time.  Most of the time, I just let her stand quietly and watch. I am a firm believer in giving my dogs time to assimilate what is going on and not forcing them into any situation.  This puts them more at ease and also gives me an opportunity to observe their body language, their eyes, their demeanor, and their level of enjoyment, stress, etc.  Uther was doing his usual "rub my belly" thing before we left.  That is, he flopped over on his back, waved his legs way up in the air and wiggled all over in anticipation of the usual belly rubs.  And, those he got.  Cara was too dignified for that kind of behavior.   A hug was what she wanted, and ten hugs were what she got.  She carried her tail very low the entire visit, and it had not stopped wagging.  A good sign. I could tell she was enjoying herself.  Enjoyment is a must for a good therapy dog.  If they enjoy it, miracles can happen. If not, it simply isn’t worth the effort.   Just as we said goodbye to the class and started to leave, one of the teachers asked if we could possibly take time to visit the special needs classes.  I wasn’t in a hurry that day, and neither Uther nor Cara appeared to be overly tired, so we opted to stay.  When we went to the building next door, we were met with loud shrieking and a ton of noise as we entered the classroom.  I read Uther’s face immediately.  He had never been comfortable in the midst of chaos, and I could tell by those vulnerable little eyes that he was not going to enjoy this.  When our grandchildren were younger and giggled and shrieked as children do, Uther would get up and go into the other room.  Never wishing to put him in a compromising position, I took him to the other side of the room, asked him to do a down and gave him a cookie.   Never had I seen him so willing to do a down stay.  He felt greatly relieved and was content to remain there.  To please me, he would have made the sacrifice and stood quietly and patiently, withstanding all manner of auditory abuse.  I would never have asked that of him.  I have learned over the years to ‘read’ my mastiffs. They can’t talk, so it’s up to me to be alert to what their needs are. They tell me with their eyes, their body language, and their posture, etc.  One need only watch them to understand what they are saying. Language sometimes takes time to learn, but it is well worth the effort.

Meanwhile, as I turned back toward the class, I noticed that the teacher had let go of Cara’s lead.  Cara had taken it upon herself to ‘calm’ an autistic child by lying down with him on the floor.   Cara lay on her back, so I knew she did not feel threatened.  This little child was no longer shrieking, but holding this gentle Mastiff girl in his tiny arms.   A Kodak moment, indeed. Cara’s gentle eyes and body language had already spoken to me.  She told me that she had found her ‘thing’.  When she got up, she moved to a little girl in a wheelchair.  She did this of her own volition, putting her head down on the child’s lap. The noise level had not fazed her.  The confusion and chaos in those classrooms had not fazed her, either. At that moment, she was telling me that she, too, would enjoy doing this kind of work.  Her area of expertise appears to be loud, energetic pre-schoolers, and special needs children, although she seems to enjoy herself wherever she goes. Uther’s joy was simply in different areas.

It is important to know your dog well enough to be able to tell what he enjoys doing …. and what he does not.  Not all dogs (or people) are suited for this type of work.  And, those that are, are not always suited to work in every area.  It’s like anything else in life.   Some prefer the show ring, some prefer obedience, some prefer ‘taking care’ of their homes and the people and animals in their lives, some prefer agility, and some prefer ‘couching’ at home.  In the area of therapy work, some prefer elderly patients, some prefer children etc., and some enjoy it all.

Although our little Lindsay would have done just about anything to please us, she was happiest at home running the show.   Our beloved matriarch, she kept everyone in line, raised everybody’s puppies, including her own, and lived for the peace and contentment that she felt with her extended family.  Wys, on the other hand, really enjoyed obedience (something he needed as an energetic youngster), and I sometimes wish we had continued on to get our CD.  Now that he is older, he is a very calm, retiring guy, who does not particularly enjoy the therapy scene.  He always stood like a gentleman to be petted etc., but the third time out, I noticed that he had not stopped shifting his weight from leg to leg.  He would actually sigh. The looks he gave me always said, "Are we done yet?’.   Not his thing, either, although he earned his CGC with no problem.  He just found it boring.  Morgana loved the show ring.  That was her ‘thing’.   She earned her CGC and TDI, also, but was far too wiggly and ‘aggressive’ with her tail and her paw at the nursing home.  She could be taught not to put her paw on people, but we never could control that tail.  It had a mind of it’s own.   She is the type of dog that would never flinch (or growl) if a child fell right smack on top of her, but her tail could flatten a grown man.  Little Desi always has places to go and things to do.  She is a very sweet girl, and far from being hyper, but doing therapy work means you have to be ‘low key’ and quiet much of the time, and that’s just not who she is.  She is a loudmouth.

Our third therapy dog is Lilith.   What a hoot she is!  There is never a dull moment when she is around.   She came back to live with us at 19 months of age, and judging from her response to us, our mastiffs, the cat, our grown children and our grandchildren, I knew almost immediately that she did not get unnerved easily.  She loved all of our dogs at first sight, and she especially adored the cat.  She had obviously been well socialized and gently raised.

After Lilith had settled in, I took her to the vet clinic (a very busy practice) so I could see her reaction to being ‘handed off’ to a stranger and her responses to the other animals.  Responses are very important.  If you are new at observing dog behavior, take a notebook with you when you socialize your puppy/dog.  Write down how he responds to different situations, noises and stimuli.  What makes him uneasy?  What does he enjoy?  Writing these things down helps make it easier to remember the areas that you need to work on together.

Lilith did very well at the vets. She seemed to like everyone and responded very well, with only one exception.  She went ‘shopping’ in the pet store and snitched a new ‘Woobie’, which I had to pay for.  No way would those slingers and goobies go unnoticed, giving me no choice but to buy it.  A few days later, we did the walk on Main Street, the horrifically noisy truck stop, the produce market (she swiped an apple), and the men’s store, which is owned by real dog people.  She adored being out and about.

Later that week, we visited the nursing home for a ‘walk through’ only.  Since I had not raised her from puppyhood, I needed to learn more about her before I could even consider having her tested, much less do therapy work with her.  I needed to learn to read her and to understand her own special language.  No petting that day from the patients, but a lot by the staff.   Things went even better than I had hoped.  Her reactions to everything and everyone were very positive.

And now, should I proceed with the testing?  I thought so, but I needed outside opinions.  Would she really make a good therapy dog?  Our other dogs had been tested either at an MCOA specialty or a dog show.  The closest place to us that did the CGC, TDI testing was three hours away, and it would be awhile before I could fit an entire day into my schedule to do that.   I knew of only one other place to take her for this type of testing.  It was at Southwestern Virginia Mental Institution.  They had a therapy program of their own and did their own testing.  I called and made an appointment for the following week.

When we arrived at the hospital, we saw several therapy dogs.  We were taken into a room with two veterinarians, the head of volunteer services, the head of animal therapy and the activities director.  Lilith was touched, handled, played with and walked by complete strangers.  They asked for a sit and a down.  No problem.  It took her awhile, but she cooperated nicely.   Then they pinched her toes, her ears, her flews and her tail, but not hard enough to hurt her.  They needed to see how she would react to the patients touching her in those sometime sensitive areas.  I was asked to give her a treat, wait 3 seconds and remove it from her mouth.  No problem there, either.  This was the most comprehensive testing I had ever witnessed, and she was doing just fine.

When they stood up, I assumed we were finished.  I was wrong. They asked me to go to the reception area and wait for them….without Lilith.  She would be going with them.  It didn’t matter how confident I was about her temperament, they wanted to find out for themselves.  I must admit that I was a bit unnerved.  In fact, I found that part of the testing to be downright nerve-wracking.  They kept her for thirty long minutes, and when they returned, dog in tow, they were all smiles.  She had passed with flying colors and was now a bonafide member of S.W.A.T.T. (Southwest Animal Therapy Team)  She even has her very own photo I.D.  Evidently, she had kept her kleptomania under control. She will be tested for her CGC and TDI soon. I expect her to do extremely well.

We ‘officially’ visited the nursing home the following Thursday.  She didn’t steal anything that day, but she goobied all over someone’s lunch.  Aaghhhhh!  How embarrassing!   However, as tempting as that lunch was, she did not try to eat anything.  Good girl!!  Laughing, the nurses assured me that the patient had already finished.   She was asleep, and they simply removed the tray.  Red faced, we continued on.

Therapy work is definitely my ‘thing’.  It may possibly be yours, too.  I am always left with a deep sense of fulfillment and a feeling that, in some small way, we may have contributed to the happiness and well being of another human being.  It has been a very humbling experience.

Evaluating your own dog should not have to be a complicated process.  It really isn’t all that difficult.  Your Mastiff must be obedient, but not a highly skilled obedience dog.  (Therapy dogs are not asked to do precision sits and downs.)  Simply ask yourself the following questions about your dog, and answer them honestly.


Possess a calm and friendly disposition?

Enjoy meeting new people and going to new places?

Have a very stable and outgoing personality?

Have good ‘bite inhibition’? (in case of an accidental, or even deliberate infliction of pain , would he refrain from snapping?)

Walk calmly and quietly on a lead?

Recover quickly from loud noises and frightening situations?

Enjoy the company of other dogs and animals?

Have a ‘low’ prey drive? Important, as he will most likely come into contact with other animals and very young children. (Uther and Cara have done therapy work with a trained ewe, cats, dogs, a ferret, large birds and even a monkey.)

Have the ability to be trained to maneuver safely around obstacles? (wheelchairs, walkers, carts, people, etc.)

Have the ability to learn and respond to simple, basic obedience commands?

If the answers are yes, you may likely be in the company of a potentially wonderful candidate.  Pursue it!  Possibly, it could be one of the most rewarding experiences in your life.  Not only does it provide health and emotional benefits to all concerned, it can be an incredible bonding experience for both you and your dog.

A sense of humor is also a necessity. Last, but not least, it is important to realize that dogs (even Mastiffs) are in no way perfect.  Understand this, and you will enjoy working with your dog even more.   If their imperfections do not include aggressiveness, they can probably be dealt with fairly easily.  After all, Uther bypassed several patients to get on with the business of finding his Twinkie fix.  Lilith shoplifted and left goobies on someone’s lunch tray.  The benefits of their visits far outweighed their ‘mistakes’.  They were both forgiven and invited to come back.

If you would like information on CGC, TDI requirements, testing, locations and test dates, please contact:

Therapy Dogs International
88 Bartley Road
Flanders, New Jersey 07836

Also, check with your local canine training centers, nursing homes, hospitals, mental institutions and vet practices to see if they have training programs and testing of their own.  You won’t regret it.

Susan Krauser
Pendragon Mastiffs