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Dog-Assisted Occupational Therapy

Dog-Assisted Therapy sessions run across an 8 week block, led by a qualifed Occupational Therapist with the support of a trained Therapy Dog. Find out more today.

What’s involved? Training a therapy dog

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As one of just a handful of registered NDIS providers offering Dog-Assisted Therapy, people often ask us: ‘What’s involved in training a therapy dog’?

Training a therapy dog requires commitment and patience. More importantly, the dog has to have the right temperament and disposition to influence positive behaviour.

Victoria sits on mats and looks at Onyx
Onyx is the most recent addition to the Dog-Assisted Therapy program

The dogs selected for Kites Children’s Dog-Assisted Therapy program are chosen for training at a very young age so they can acquire skills in obedience and responsiveness. They need to be able to bond with others and have the capacity to focus and build relationships. How do we train a playful pup, so it becomes suitable to work with children who are neurodiverse as a therapy dog?

Guide Dogs WA selection

Kites has a formal partnership with Guide Dogs WA (link opens in new window) which means that all the dogs are trained to a certain standard. Victoria Wilkinson is our therapy dog trainer. She has international qualifications in Guide Dog Training and Autism Assistance Dog Instruction (link opens in new window) and has worked in this area for more than a decade. Victoria is well aware of the attributes needed by a therapy dog.

Victoria guides Onyx through an obstacle course
Victoria gradually introduces Onyx to new skills

“When I’m looking for a therapy dog, I want one that is laid-back, calm and remains relaxed around children. It has to be confident by nature but also adaptable to work with different children and handlers. In addition, it has to be open to new tasks,” she explains.

She’s recently finished training Onyx, a black Labrador. Onyx joins three other dogs in the program at Kites in Victoria Park. What made him suitable for this role?

“He was a very gentle, a relaxed puppy born into a Guide Dogs litter. His disposition made him a good fit. His siblings Ian, Harper and Lynette had all gone on to become a Guide Dog, Autism Assistance Dog and Ambassador Dog,” Victoria adds.

Developing the dog’s skills

When Onyx was one and had completed his socialisation training with Guide Dogs WA, Victoria spotted his potential as a therapy dog for the Kites Dog-Assisted program.

Victoria walks along a path with Onyx
Victoria has developed a close bond with Onyx

“I had to build on the foundation of the initial training by Guide Dogs WA to develop his skills further. Forming a good bond and a strong relationship with Onyx was essential to encourage him to learn new tasks,” explains Victoria.

“Onyx needed to be comfortable in the company of children and at ease participating in tricks, such as rolling a ball, spinning a wheel with his nose or using his paws to turn the pages of books. He also had to remain placid with children dressing him up as part of imaginative play,” she adds.

Once Onyx had mastered basic tasks, Victoria set up practice therapy sessions with an occupational therapist and a volunteer, usually the son or daughter of a staff member at Kites Children’s therapy Services.

“During the practice sessions, I work on fine-tuning tasks, using positive reinforcement and supportive handling techniques to build confidence. I pay particular attention to eye contact, tone of voice, lures and rewards.”

Aims of a therapy dog

Once the dog is around eighteen months old, an occupational therapist becomes the primary handler of the therapy dog.

Every Dog-Assisted Therapy session has a purpose. Goals are set early on between the therapist and the child’s parents. For example, it could be: to motivate a child to engage in functional activities, or develop motor skills.

A young girl lies on a mat next to Onyx
Onyx will join three other dogs in the Dog-Assisted Therapy program

The therapist, dog and child will be present at each therapy session, along with the parent or caregiver.

Onyx is a working dog, but he requires downtime. He may play with other therapy dogs in Guide Dog WA’s enrichment yard close to the Kites therapy rooms. The Labrador also has periods for grooming and other enrichment activities.

“I take him for regular lead walks for exercise and enrichment and to maintain his general focus, responsiveness, and leadership behaviour. Onyx goes home with a volunteer boarder who will care for him in their house. They will drop him off and pick him up each day from the therapy rooms.”

Dog-Assisted Therapy can also be helpful for children who have a fear of dogs or animals. Through gentle guidance from the occupational therapist, trust develops between the dog and the child. It may start with simple activities like looking at the dog from a distance and talking about dogs, to eventually sitting next to the animal to engage in activities in meaningful ways.

Expansion of program

A second hub offering Dog-Assisted Therapy in the northern suburbs of Perth looks set to open later this year.

The Channel 7 Telethon Trust (link opens in new window), a charitable organisation providing life-changing support for Western Australian children living with disabilities, is assisting with the program’s expansion. Telethon is generously providing resources and additional training for therapy dogs, allowing more children in Western Australia to benefit from Dog-Assisted Therapy.

Victoria says feedback on the Dog-Assisted Therapy program has been overwhelmingly positive.

“My role of selecting the right dog is vital. Bringing out the best in the dog to support each child with their goals is profoundly rewarding. It’s positively impacting the child and also the whole family. I hear this first hand from families, so I know how much this therapy prgram makes a difference.”

Find out more

The Dog-Assisted Therapy program involves a series of eight sessions. Children with anxiety, ADHD or who are autistic are among those who participate in the program. Dogs offer a new level of fun and enjoyment compared to traditional occupational therapy sessions led solely by an OT.

Occupational Therapist Nat O Neill stands next to young client who is building blocks
The program is proving so popular a new hub is being created in WA

If you want to find out more, fill in the form below. We have a range of Therapy Services to support your child.

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