The Dogcharmer: Nelson, the altruistic Westie

Some characteristics that make for a good therapy dog.

Nelson. —Jill Durovsik

Dear Tom:

I have an adorable, friendly, loving Westie named Nelson. He is almost 2 years old, and I think he would make an amazing pet therapy dog. How do I go about training Nelson for this type of work? I work with cancer patients and their caregivers, and would love to bring Nelson to work with me … he seems to make everyone smile, and I’d love to share that with others. What are your thoughts?

Jill from Chappy


Dear Jill,

Generally speaking, dogs mature emotionally at about 2 years of age. They go from puppy, to punk, to young adult, to adult, to senior. The fact that Nelson is mellow, loving, friendly, and so easy at under 2 years is a great sign as to his eligibility as a potential therapy dog. He needs to be pretty well socialized, so that he’s not overly reactive to new things. You’re looking for a “seen that, no big deal” response to novel situations, coupled with “good manners.” When placed on a hospital bed with a patient, he should be receptive to snuggling and petting, without jumping into the convalescent’s face demanding attention. Nor do we want him saying, “You’ve had enough food, it’s my turn,” as he’s ripping into the patient’s food tray next to the bed. He needs to be reliable and cooperative with basic obedience, such as “sit,” “stay,” and “leave it,” and love to be loved by people.

I’ve met quite a few dogs that were absolute “naturals” when it came to comforting those in need, and worked with a handful of dogs that by simply being there, and being petted, helped PTSD patients relax and open up with their psychiatrist. Sounds to me like Nelson is what I refer to as “altruist type” temperament dog, and therefore a candidate as a therapy giver. To get started helping Nelson help others, you may want to contact Pet Partners or the Delta Society for certification. If you think it’s necessary, I’d be happy to help with initial therapy introductions.


Good luck, and congratulations on the potential altruism,

The Dogcharmer


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