Therapy Dog Handler Education

St. John Ambulance therapy dog teams have been providing comfort and support to individuals they visit with in Saskatchewan for over 15 years. The program originated in 1992 in Peterborough, Ontario. There are numerous therapy dog organizations throughout Canada in addition to the St. John Ambulance program.  

St. John Ambulance human and therapy dog volunteer teams visit a range of places where individuals do not typically have access to a pet. This includes hospitals, older adult and special care homes, addiction treatment centres, prisons, airports, businesses, and university campuses. There is extensive vetting and testing involved in becoming a therapy dog team, including a criminal record and vulnerable sector check, references, and an in-person evaluation. If you are not familiar with the St. John Ambulance therapy dog program, you can learn more about it in this 60-minute webinar designed for potential volunteers.

Once a St. John Ambulance therapy dog team passes their evaluation, there are not a lot of education opportunities available for handlers to increase their awareness and skills. This is the case for the majority of therapy dog programs in Canada. This course, titled Being an Informed Therapy Dog Handler, aims to address this gap in therapy dog handler education by addressing the three cornerstones to a successful therapy dog visit - the therapy dog program participant, the therapy dog, and the therapy dog handler. 

This course is of obvious interest to therapy dog handlers from St. John Ambulance and other therapy dog organizations, but it is also open to anyone wishing to improve their inclusive communication awareness and skills with others, the wellbeing of themselves, and/or to better understand their dog’s behaviour. 

This course is made up of 5 modules and will take on average 8 hours to complete:

When you have finished this course, you should be able to: 

  1. Become aware of your own biases with regard to the diversity of others (e.g., culture, sexuality, race, socioeconomic status) and make a commitment to supporting inclusive therapy dog visiting experiences.
  2. Describe what mental health is, with particular attention to stress and trauma and how they impact thinking and behaving, and identify the basics of responding to a participant’s mental health.
  3. Describe mental health self-care and peer support, why they are important, and identify how therapy dog handlers can practice them.
  4. Identify the basics of dog body language and therapy dog care, during and after visiting.

The course was designed to start with the About this Course section, and then move onto Modules 1-5. You can take a break at any point and return to the course to continue where you left off. Each module should take you about 90 minutes to complete, and the course in total should take roughly 8 hours to finish.

Please note that this course contains material about human and animal wellness that may be sensitive to some audiences. Module 2 is likely the most intensive, but it provides an important foundation for the rest of the course. Take your time with the material and review it at your own pace. It would be ideal if individuals completed this course within the first six months of becoming a therapy dog handler.

Handler education is an important piece of the therapy dog team experience that is long overdue. It’s so exciting to see this course happening! Wendi Stoeber, St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Handler