Canine Behavior/Just a few random questions
I have a 1 year old female german shepherd mix, Gracie. She makes lots of moaning sounds when she's relaxing/sleeping. It's quite funny and I've owned a dog who was quite so vocal before, is this just a funny personality trait or could it be an underlying medical issue?
I would love to train her to become a therapy dog in hospitals or schools as I am a special education teacher. What is involved in the test/training of these dogs? Are there innate traits she needs to have prior to training that will make her a better candidate? Any information you could give me about that would be appreciated!
Lastly, I was wondering if you could take a look at her picture that I'm attaching and see if you could guess at what else she might be mixed with? Her toes are webbed and she loves the water, so we're thinking shepherd/lab, but wanted to get an expert's opinion ; )
Thanks so much!
Than you for your questions and the pictures. She's beautiful!
Regarding her moaning while relaxing, it could just be a sign of how content she is. Or it could be a sign of being a little grumpy - for example if she groans when you pet her while she's relaxing. It could just be a part of her settling behavior pattern as she gets more relaxed, she sighs and moans.
But I'm not a vet and cannot speak to any medical conditions. If her energy, appetite, potty, sleeping habits are all good, I wouldn't be too concerned, but you should mention it to your vet and let them decide if it could be a sign of a medical condition and if any tests should be run. If it's more like wheezing or struggling for air, and less like purring or contented sighing, then don't wait to speak with your vet as that would suggest more strongly that it's medical in nature.
Regarding Therapy work, the dogs who are best suited for doing therapy work are those who have a calm energy by nature, who are very social and love to be petted by and engage with strangers. They're confident and not easily spooked by sudden noises or a stranger coming around the corner. One of the best foundation tests for therapy work is to pass the Canine Good Citizen test through the AKC. You can search for certified evaluators in your area. They may require you take an obedience class or two before you're ready to take the test, though some will allow you to take the test without first going through a class. There are 10 skills on the test that the dog must pass cleanly. They include leash skills, walking through crowds, reaction to sudden startle, handling by a stranger, not jumping on people, extended out-of-sight stay where the tester or an assistant holds the leash while you go out of sight for 2 or 3 minutes (I forget off hand how long it is for the test), and a few other skills. If she passes these, that bodes well and speaks to her level of calm and confidence. She should retest every couple years as her tolerance for things will change over time as she ages, and could change with illness or injury.
Beyond the innate traits described above, the specific skills that dogs need to do therapy work will be dependent on where the dog is doing it. Most facilities that use therapy dogs have a set of requirements specific to their needs and issues. For example, a dog doing therapy in a hospital will need to show a lack of concern for a person on crutches and wheelchairs, while a therapy dog at an elementary school is going to need to be particularly tolerant of screeching children, lots of handling, potentially balls being tossed right near them (and not chasing after those balls to play with). They're going to need to be very, very comfortable with children and tolerant of inappropriate handling that children tend to do such as grabbing ears and tails, getting into the dog's face, hugging and the like. Of course, as the dog's owner, your job is to protect her from those kids and teach them from day one how they SHOULD interact with children, and then repeat that lesson every time the dog visits - and possibly multiple times per visit - until the children are demonstrating consistently polite behavior with the dog, and then refresh the lesson frequently anyway.
There are no regulations for what constitutes a therapy dog at the federal or even state level. It is entirely up to the facility that's using the dogs. They are not allowed the same public access as service dogs (e.g. seeing eye dogs, seizure alert dogs, etc). Their freedom of movement is restricted to the location where they're doing their therapy work. But strong, positive socialization experience, good basic obedience such as Sit and extended down/stays, laying quietly nearby, engaging in a quiet manner, with a soft mouth, respecting personal space, not barking - these are some of the skills that can be worked on with training to help improve the dog's skill and thus ability to take on the role of therapy dog.
The most important thing is to pay attention to HER. If she's not thoroughly enjoying the job, then she should not be doing it. And she may like it for a bit and then find it too difficult. She may only like it once a week or once a month, or she may only like it for the first few months. Or she could love it and make a career out of therapy work and do this until she's in her golden years. It's up to her and we need to respect that. If she's not comfortable, we increase the likelihood of her behaving in a way that is not acceptable in that environment and that's usually rather upsetting to the humans involved.
Finally, as to her genetics... I clearly see the German Sheppherd. In her reclined position, its hard to note body shape, height, posture, stack (how she holds herself over her four feet), etc. So I can't offer a good suggestion of what she might be mixed with. But there are some inexpensive DNA tests now available through Amazon. I had both my boys done. It was less than $100 each. The brand I went with was the Wisdom Panel for mixed breeds. I read the reviews of several and found that this one seemed to be the most accurate. Of course, I wouldn't put it at 100% accurate as there could be breeds that are missed, or the proportion could be listed out of actual order. In the end, we love our dogs just as much no matter what their true genetics are. But it was fun to do and see the results.
I hope I've been able to address each of your questions. Please feel free to followup if you need more clarification on any of what I said.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist