Training a Therapy Dog - Weeks 1 - 4

Updated: Apr 26

Written by & all photos by: Rob Thomas, Project Manager of Cariad Pet Therapy.

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This is a monthly blog of the journey of Indie, a working Golden Retriever, on her quest to be considered as a therapy dog with Cariad Pet Therapy. She is the pet of Rob & Christine Thomas, founders of Cariad Pet Therapy.

We must acknowledge that no dog is born a therapy dog, for Indie to have a chance of succeeding it is dependant on her nature, temperament, love for people outside of the family unit, coupled with basic training. As pet therapy is based on a mutual enjoyment for the dog and those they visit, Indie will not be considered if she doesn't enjoy visits; for her to just tolerate visits, isn't enough.

History of Indie

Indie was born on 30th January 2021, one of seven litter mates, 1 boy and 6 girls. Her kennel name is Aglabs Belvedere. Her mother is Buffy and her Father is Biz, who is a field trial champion. Buffy’s mother, and Indie’s grandmother, Millie is also with the breeder @aglabsworkinglabradors

The breeder ever so kindly gifted Indie to us to become a therapy dog with Cariad Pet Therapy. A gift that is unparalleled, an amazing gesture that we are so grateful for. We have a connection with the breeder as Nova's sister Cinders, is with them. They have been supportive of Cariad Pet Therapy in the past.

Indie was chosen for us by the breeder as ‘She’s a lovely balanced pup, nice colour, bold and attentive. Not fazed by anything’. We found out only the day before collection as to which puppy we were having from the litter. Miss Purple it was. We were overwhelmed as you could imagine, so excited to meet her and bring her home.

We collected Indie on Sunday 28th March 2021 and Indie slept all the way home (5 hours) in a crate in the car without problem.

On arrival home she was met by our established pack of:

  • Nova – Fox Red Labrador, aged 2

  • Harper – Black Labrador, aged 4

  • Percy – Black Labrador, aged 4

  • Tink – Lurcher, aged 10 (ish)

This was an area we had to plan for carefully, bringing in a new puppy into an established pack will test the dynamics.

Our cottage is a small one, two rooms downstairs of a kitchen and front room that leads out to the garden and decking. We have an established gate that divides the kitchen and the front room, our house is generally puppy proof and bears several scars from puppies in the past.

When Indie came in, the dogs were interested when she was held in Rob's arms, once she was put down and she began to move about, they were less keen. We predicted the responses from the pack, both Nova and Percy were cautious, Harper told her straight away the rules as did Tink – a rumble of a growl.

Before Indie joined us, we approached Bobbi from Lifeline Dogs – South Wales, someone who we had previously discussed supporting us at Cariad Pet Therapy.

We have always liked Bobbi’s approach to dog training. We asked her if she would collaborate with us in the training of Indie to become a therapy dog, which she kindly agreed to do.

This would involve regular zoom meetings, in person meets with Indie and access to her online training.

Bobbi and Rob met the day before Indie arrived on Zoom and discussed a range of strategies to help with the transition and Bobbi enrolled us onto her online course Perfect Puppy.

The Perfect Puppy online course has 6 comprehensive sections with 61 videos in total for each section.

In the first Zoom meeting we discussed:

Introducing her to the established pack

Setting up the house

The bonding processes

Early training techniques

The Perfect Puppy Online Course

We also watched the first 3 sections of the Perfect Puppy before her arrival, which were:

  • Setting up your puppy to succeed

  • Reward

  • The Basics

We found the online course extremely useful and easy to follow with the videos, even with our previous experience of puppies we learnt a lot.

Indie Diary

Week 1 and 2

28/3/21 – 10/4/21

It was clear to see that Indie was indeed a ‘lovely balanced pup …bold and attentive. Not fazed by anything’.

She was confident, happy to see new people and she tried her best to bond with the pack.

Her exuberance and playful nipping did not go down too well with the other dogs, for some it was ‘here we go again’ and for others, like Nova, it was a new and stressful at times experience. We knew this was going to be a management task over the next few months.

For the first few days we kept Indie largely away from the pack so she didn't become a 'pack dog' and become reliant on the pack thus less independent. Rob fed her, let her out, cleaned up after her, played with her and generally was her buddy in the first week.

She had access to outside and was not on any carpeted areas (which is only one bedroom upstairs and the office). Her toileting was 90% outside, we have had good weather which helps. There have been times she has gone inside where we missed the signs, but as time progressed, if she did, it was by the patio door leading to the garden, a good sign. Often it was our fault for not taking her straight out after play, food or sleep.

Indie is fed away from the pack, she is on a raw food diet which the breeder used and we use with all our dogs. She is fed by Rob to aid the bonding process between them.

By the second week the pack gradually accepted Indie. Nova (our Fox Red Labrador and now second youngest) was a target for play and the nipping; Harper told her straight, Percy ignored and Tink was aloof, but also played occasionally.

Indie spent most mornings at Cariad Pet Food Bank where she met volunteers and their dogs. All interactions were positive and she was happy meeting people with a waggy tail and moving forwards. This was a pleasing sign. This socialisation from an early age is key.

Indie soon got used to travelling in the van, something by the end of week 2 it became a normal occurrence for her. She has a cage in the back of the van.

It was a very tiring time for us at home, balancing working from home, managing the dynamics of the established dogs with Indie, and looking after her - not much constructive work was produced during the first two weeks. Indie slept in a crate in our bedroom and she slept well, awake between 5.30am and 6am. If she did wake during the night, a simple smooth through the crate sent her back off to sleep.

Training Week 1 & 2 in collaboration with Lifeline Dogs - South Wales

'Go get it' - a simple game played at close quarters with Rob, which helps to form the basis for games of fetch and find it. Introduction to hand gestures to leave Rob's side and "go get" a toy or piece of food, and to keep engaged with Rob by turning to look to see where to go next, or to return back to Rob and begin the process again.

Recall - we use the phrase 'pup pup' which we use for recall with all our dogs, and we reward her with lots of fuss and a treat.

Hand Touch - to receive a treat reward. Encouraging Indie to move forward on her own to touch a hand to get the treat. Promotes self confidence in a young pup as the decision to move forward is their own.

We did a lot of play, tuggy, snuggles, sitting, reminding 'paws on the floor', using hand signal for 'stop' as well as the verbal command.

The hardest part of the first two weeks (apart from tiredness), we would say is Indie's relationship with Nova. They play well together but it leads to over exuberance on Indie's behalf and Nova becomes stressed. This requires constant management and planning, mainly through separation.

Week 3 and 4

11/4/21 – 25/4/21

Indie continues to grow and bond with the rest of the pack. She continues to attend the pet food bank for socialisation and anyone she meets on the way. One big development is that very soon into week 3 she slept downstairs with the rest of the pack. Wakes about 6am. She is settling into a good routine during the day and at the night.

She continues to target Nova for play, Nova seems to enjoy and instigate it but does not like the leg nips. The management of this continues. Indie is responding to redirection and in the latter of Week 4, responding well to 'no'.

Routine of sleep, toilet, play, sleep continues. Weather is fine too which helps for an easy access to outside. Indie has found a corner in the kitchen next to the washing machine to settle to sleep which she likes, she continues to be independent of the pack, something we wanted to encourage at this point, as we want her to be confident in her own abilities to experience the world.

Indie received her second vaccination on April 15th so she went out with Rob on her own for walks on the lead, and with the pack to the beach and woods. Again, she is happy to walk off with Rob away from the pack, and doesn’t look back. On the first Saturday we went into Haverfordwest Town.

Rob initially walked her at 7.30am with only a few people about, she was unsure about single people approaching her from a distance, as it was very quiet and she was a little apprehensive at first. We went down to town again at 2pm when there were more people about. She was excellent meeting and greeting people from all age groups and moved forward to people she wanted to see on her own without any encouragement. Indie settled very well in the busy main street, happy to watch people walking past her, we were pleased with her.

She met people of all ages and genders, incredibly happy moving forwards with a waggy tail and was not jumping up either. Her only apprehension was a double buggy heading towards her, which she avoided. No issue waking on the lead either, happy to keep up with a few stops for sniffs and weed eating attempts. This is a slow introduction to new people, places and all the other stimulations there are out there.

So her world is now opening up, lots of walks with and without the pack. Lots of treats, and fuss for recall, which is working well. She can walk well on the lead and off lead. She will sit at the bottom of your feet or on your feet and just watch at times. We have not tried her in many distracted areas off lead as yet. We tend to go off lead on trails, beaches and woodlands, generally early before breakfast.

Overall, we are happy how she is settling in and developing, she is a very loving dog and is part of our family.

Training Week 3 & 4 in collaboration with Lifeline Dogs - South Wales

Go get it - continuing the game from previous weeks, but increasing the distance so she moves further away.

Recall - continuing this exercise from previous weeks, but slowly increasing the distance covered. Recall is an activity that should be practiced all the time to ensure that every situation is practiced and rewarded. Every day is a learning day for this.

Hand Touch - continuing this exercise from previous weeks, but slowing increasing the distance covered.

Lead desensitisation - wearing the lead around the house/garden under supervision. Lots of encouragement for moving forward with treat rewards.

Walking on lead - Taking any opportunity to enjoy a short lead walk, with lots of encouragement and rewards.

Socialisation - Providing as many new experiences as appropriate during these first few weeks, meeting new people, sniffing new smells, walking on different surfaces, hearing traffic, buses, motorbikes. Crossing the road with the crossing sounds - all whilst encouraging and treating/rewards.

Sit and Wait - This began with a simple sit to the front of Rob or Christine, with treat. Over these two weeks, we started to request a 'wait' from Indie. This was achieved by simply taking a step back and then forward again to reward Indie for staying where she was. At the end of week 4, Indie was comfortable sitting whilst Christine took up to 4 steps away, and then had lots of fuss and a treat reward.

No jumping up - being the smallest of the pack, she stretches up to greet you and to see what is going on. At all times, we place her feet back on the floor and remind her "down".

We completed the 3 remaining sections of the Perfect Puppy.

  • Basics

  • Socialisation

  • Life Skills

We would encourage everyone getting a puppy to enrol and study this easy to follow course, click here to find out more details on the Puppy Perfect course by Lifeline Dogs - South Wales. Contact Bobbi with any queries you have - go for it!

Summary of Weeks 1 - 4

Indie has been a wonderful puppy, keen to learn and eager to please. She responds well to praise as well as treats for her training. We are beginning to fade out some of the treats at times. She is becoming part of the furniture and we can leave her unsupervised for short periods without worry. She has experienced a lot in the first 4 weeks, her relationship and impact on the established pack needs careful management to ensure their quality of life is not impacted whilst she is in 'puppy stage'.

Communication and consistency is vital for us in supporting Indie, we must talk about her 80% of the time as she warrants that amount of time and effort. Things change every few days and we must respond to those changes as she develops.

We look forward to seeing what the next 4 weeks will bring, we will post a blog at the end of week 8.

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