Sam Shephard is an experienced German Shepherd owner and has learned throughout the years how to optimize the breed's health and wellness.
People have known for centuries that pets help to relieve anxiety, provide emotional support, and overall make life happier. Today, there are official designations for dogs that fulfill these purposes: therapy dogs and emotional support dogs. Whether you are looking to volunteer or to address mental health in your own life, a dog can be an excellent companion.
When people think of jobs for German Shepherds, they are most likely to think of them as police or military dogs. But German Shepherds’ intelligence and affection also make them perfectly suited to be therapy and emotional support dogs. With the right training, a German Shepherd can make a big difference in your life and the lives of those around you.
What Is a Therapy Dog?
A therapy dog is a dog specially trained to provide emotional comfort, affection, and support to people through volunteering. Owners may take their therapy dogs to visit hospitals, retirement homes, disaster areas, and schools. Visits from a therapy dog can provide people in these settings with joy and comfort during difficult times.
Therapy dogs can also help with specific activities, such as helping children with autism practice reading aloud, or encouraging patients to participate in gentle physical activities. Therapy dogs have been proven to reduce stress, as well as to help people work towards social and communicative goals.
What Traits Make a Good Therapy Dog?
The most important characteristics of a great therapy dog are that they are calm and that they get along with all people. A therapy dog must maintain a calm demeanor in loud or crowded rooms, be able to focus despite distractions, and avoid jumping on people. Dogs of any size can make good therapy dogs. It is most important that they are calm, social, and have the intelligence and concentration for thorough training.
Do German Shepherds Make Good Therapy Dogs?
Because of their intelligence and affectionate nature, German Shepherds make some of the best therapy dogs. German Shepherds are incredibly smart, which means they can be trained to do almost anything. With some dedicated time, German Shepherds can learn to be patient, quiet, and calm even in hectic settings.
German Shepherds are also extremely social and will enjoy all the attention they receive as part of therapy activities. Because German Shepherds are such athletic dogs, you will have to be careful when training them about distinguishing between playtime and therapy time.
A German Shepherd therapy dog will need plenty of play and exercise, but they’ll have to remain calm when meeting new people, rather than trying to play. You should keep in mind that some people may feel nervous around German Shepherds because of their reputation as police and military dogs. When volunteering for therapy, always respect the comfort level of other people.
Therapy Dog Training and Certification
Some places require official certification before you and your dog can volunteer together. Organizations such as the Alliance of Therapy Dogs provide training and certification. Typically these programs involve a training course, test, and monitoring during the first few volunteer visits.
Once your German Shepherd has therapy dog certification, you may be able to access opportunities to volunteer with national organizations such as the Red Cross. You may be able to find a local organization that offers therapy dog training and certification. If you’re interested in volunteering at a specific facility, try asking them if they work with a particular therapy dog organization.
What Is an Emotional Support Dog?
Emotional support dogs are a little different from therapy animals, although both use a similar skill set.
Therapy dogs provide emotional relief to others through volunteering, and emotional support dogs provide support to their owners. People suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses can benefit immensely from having an emotional support animal. Some doctors or therapists may recommend getting an emotional support animal as part of treatment, and some places (such as college dormitories and apartment complexes that don’t usually allow animals) may make accommodations for an emotional support dog.
It is important to note, however, that emotional support animals are distinct from service animals, which have access protected by law. A number of different animals can become emotional support animals, including cats, pigs, rabbits, ferrets, and birds. But dogs are the most popular.
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Do German Shepherds Make Good Emotional Support Dogs?
For the same reasons that German Shepherds make great therapy dogs, they can be fantastic emotional support dogs: they’re smart and loving. An emotional support dog should also be trained to be calm and obedient. For an emotional support dog, the individual connection with the owner is especially important. The best emotional support dogs are emotionally in sync with their people so they can provide comfort when it’s most necessary.
German Shepherds form close bonds with their people. Keep in mind that every dog is different. Just because a dog is a German Shepherd doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a perfect therapy or emotional support dog. It’s important to get to know the individual dog’s temperament to see if they’ll be a good fit.
Emotional Support Dog Certification
There are a number of organizations that can provide your German Shepherd with emotional support dog certification. Certification provides a couple of key benefits: you can take your dog with you on a commercial flight without paying an extra fee, and you can live with your dog in pet-free housing. To obtain these rights, you need a letter from your doctor authorizing you to have an emotional support dog. There is no official registry or certification process for emotional support animals.
There are many websites advertising certification and official letters for emotional support animals, but these do not offer any real benefit. All you need is a letter from your medical practitioner. An “emotional support dog” vest does not grant your dog the right to enter places where dogs are typically not allowed, such as movie theaters and restaurants.
How to Train a German Shepherd Therapy Dog
Unlike service dogs, which are usually trained by specialists as puppies, most therapy dogs are trained by their owners after adoption. Training your dog as a therapy dog is a lot of work, and there are training programs that can help. But you may want to at least start training yourself. The two most important foundations of German Shepherd therapy dog training are temperament and obedience.
It is essential that your dog is socialized to feel comfortable in all settings, with all kinds of people, without ever showing fear or aggression. You’ll have to prepare your dog through regular socialization: visiting dog parks, public parks, friends’ homes, and public areas. Your dog should feel comfortable entering unfamiliar spaces and meeting new people. You may also need to train them to interact with specific physical features, such as elevators.
Another training involves standard (but thorough!) obedience training. Your dog should be able to sit, stay, heel, and lay down. German Shepherds excel at this kind of training when worked with consistently. When you’re working on training, it’s important to use positive reinforcement, such as treats and praise, rather than punishments. Positive training helps your dog to enjoy working with you and obeying your commands, while negative training can cause your dog to develop fear and aggression over time.
If you have a German Shepherd or have always loved them, and you’re thinking about getting a therapy animal or emotional support animal, the pairing could be perfect. With the right temperament match and proper training, German Shepherds can make some of the best assistance animals.
- AKC (American Kennel Club), How To Train a Therapy Dog, 2019.
- Matthews Max, Service Dog: Training Your Own Service Dog & Psychiatric Service Dog, CPI, 2018, 222p.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2020 Sam Shepards
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on August 08, 2020:
Thank you glad you enjoyed the article. German Shepherds are great pets and excellent for service dog training. A fully trained service dog is of course very expensive and only for people in need. But have a GSD in the house is excellent for the overall atmosphere and fun if you have the time and space.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 07, 2020:
Good stuff I like it. I need one.