How to Become a Therapy Dog

How to Become a Therapy Dog

Trainer Kristen Triplett attempts to coax Calypso into a sit, a command essential for a therapy dog.

She's one of several dogs waiting for judgment: a fuzzy black Portuguese water dog, a distinguished doberman, a calico-splotched corgi, and the most beautiful black and white dust mop I’ve ever seen. It was the other dachshund who put us to shame, though. Five years her junior and bred for showing, he made Calypso look like the scrappy tomboy (er, that’s tom-dog) that she is.

We’re waiting for an evaluator to decide if Calypso would make a good therapy dog.

It first occurred to me that Calypso might make an excellent therapy dog about five years ago, when I took her to Boca Ciega Center to write a Christmas story about life in a nursing home. Calypso, at little more than a year old, let everyone pet her. She reveled in the attention. A few years later I brought her along to an interview at Egret Cove Center, where she let a man with no hands hold her. He couldn’t pet her, not really, but he seemed to take comfort in having her long warm body snuggled against his.

I know that feeling well, and it’s one of the best things in the world.

Dogs, I believe, want to have a job. They seem to enjoy doing things, and, unlike me, they’re social creatures who crave interaction. By pet dog standards, Calypso has an interesting life – she goes on a lot of Gabber-related interviews – but I’d like to be able to do more with her. That’s where the idea of her working as a therapy dog comes into play.

Unlike service dogs, who only attend to one specific person, therapy dogs work with many different types of people. A therapy dog might visit a Hospice patient, offering some warmth and happy memories for those about to die. At funerals, therapy dogs can offer the grieving a furry paw to hold.

When a child has been abused or molested and needs to stand trial, he or she has the option – if there’s a dog available – of having a dog in their lap to comfort them. People who can no longer live on their own and must whittle their belongings down to half a room in a “skilled care facility” can have a few moments of happiness with a therapy dog in their lap. Kids who struggle with reading may be shy about reading out loud to their classmates, who may ridicule them, but will gladly read a book to a dog, who never mocks.

Therapy Dogs International (TDI) has almost 25,000 volunteer dogs registered – and insured – in the US and Canada, and they need more. They were the first paws on the ground in Newtown Connecticut this past December, and they brought dogs to the World Trade Center on 9-11-01. They visit CASA; they go into All Childrens Hospital. They go wherever someone needs a dog to comfort them.

It isn’t as easy as registering a dog with TDI, I learn from Kristen Triplett at Pasadena Pet Motel. She handles several therapy dogs, and she gives me contact information for Lori Fricker, a TDI evaluator. I fill out a short form and pay ten dollars; Lori tells me to come to the Dog Training Club of St. Petersburg on May 11.

When I sign up, I tell Lori I’m not certain Calypso can pass all the tests but I’d like to see what she can and can’t do; Lori encourages me to bring her in and try.

I show up having read over the different “tests” Calypso must pass to earn her red therapy dog bandana, and even though I’m fairly certain this is just a practice run for us, I’m nervous. I want her to pass.

Calypso and I walk to a simulated check-in table, like one you would see at a school or nursing home, then we mingle with other people and dogs. I hand her leash to a stranger and leave the room; she doesn’t miss a beat and walks with them without problem. Apparently I’m the only one of us who suffers separation anxiety. Calypso visits with people in wheelchairs, on crutches, and a woman who runs up to her yelling. She passes these parts of test with flying colors.

She does not pass the rest of the test.

There are three things I never taught Calypso: sit, down, and not eating someone’s hand when they offer her a treat. When she was a puppy, all I wanted her to do was to come back to me when I called her. As a result, my black-and-tan best friend can hear a cheese wrapper a mile away, breaks into a dead run when you say “treat!”, and looks at you like you’re speaking human when you tell her to sit.

Not knowing how to sit or stay never seemed important – after all, she’s 13 pounds – but today, it’s her downfall. The handlers (that’s the humans) and dogs stand in a row and Lori tells us to put our dogs in the “down” position. I look down at Calypso, say “down”, and she looks up at me with her tail wagging and he little eyebrows raised, simultaneously charming and clueless.

Next, we have to put our dogs in the sit position and tell them to stay while we walk 20 feet away, then call them. I feel every eye on me as I try to physically assist Calypso into a sitting position – Lori lets me try three times – before I settle for letting her stand and commanding her to stay. After three tries, Calypso stays while I walk away. I call her, and she looks at me as if to say, “Are you kidding me?” and, with great suspicion, pads over to me.

She also has difficulty ignoring a sausage biscuit on the ground, another part of the test. She has to leave it alone on my command, and while she technically does, she did walk away from it with her entire head turned towards it. In all fairness, even I would have trouble leaving a sausage biscuit, but a dog visiting nursing home could be offered anything from a piece of bacon to an antipsychotic drug, and it’s crucial, Lori explains, that she not take either.

Lori’s really nice about Calypso not earning her red bandana – the corgi and the pretty little dust mop don’t pass, either – but I feel horrible. It’s not Calypso’s fault she didn’t pass, of course; it’s mine, for not teaching her basic commands.

Teddy the fluffy Portuguese water dog, the distinguished doberman, and Calypso’s sexy little doppelganger, Tahl, all earn their bandanas. They will pay $45 to register with TDI and $30 a year to stay members. That will include insurance, just in case of any unfortunate incidents, and registry in the therapy dog database. Calypso can join, too, as soon as she passes the re-test.

“She’s going to be a great therapy dog,” Lori tells me as she explains how the retesting works. “She is a sweet girl and with just a bit more training for the sit/down/stay portions of the test and the ‘leave it’ exercise, she will do just fine!”

When I call Pasadena Pet Motel to set up the training, Kristen reassures me: “She’s a great dog.”

Yes, she is.

 Calypso will re-test on June 22. If you want to see if your dog has what it takes to be a therapy dog, contact Lori Fricker at (727) 544-1116 or to register for a therapy dog evaluation. For more information on therapy dogs, please visit

Contact Cathy Salustri at

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