Can American Alsatian Dogs be Therapy Dogs?

By Jennifer Stoeckl, MATennifer Stoeckl, MAT - Dire Wolf Project CEO, June 17, 2020
Tudor, a DireWolf Dog

When one thinks of the typical therapy dog, I bet the springy, perky, bubbly, outgoing black and white sorority dog with the beautiful long flowing coat comes to your mind. It certainly does for me. To be sure, a therapy dog has to be able to interact appropriately with multiple strangers on a daily basis. Therapy dogs are family pets that have been trained to work in hospitals, nursing homes, court houses, and schools. They work with the youngest children or the oldest elderly. They work with the near death and the traumatized victim. Average dog owners dedicate their spare time to train their dog to help show comfort and healing to various public communities in need of just the right support that only a loving dog can give. It is for this reason that we typically think of an outgoing friendly dog as a therapy dog. So on what part of God's green earth would we sit down and imagine that a highly sensitive, typically introverted American Alsatian dog would be able to "work" as a therapy dog?

Before we answer that question, let's identify the three types of therapy dogs and learn how they are different.

The first type of therapy dog is called the "Therapeutic Visitation Therapy Dog" and is the most common type of the three. These sweet dogs help individuals who must live away from home due to mental or physical illness. A R.E.A.D. therapy dog might motivate a reluctant child to improve his/her reading ability. A visit from a Therapeutic Visitation Therapy Dog can brighten someone's day, lift someone's spirits, and help motivate them in therapy or treatment.

Animal Assisted Therapy Dogs assist physical and occupational therapists in meeting goals important to an individual’s recovery. Some tasks that these dogs can help to achieve include gaining motion in limbs, fine motor control, and hand-eye coordination. Animal Assisted Therapy Dogs typically work in rehabilitation facilities.

Facility Therapy Dogs primarily work and live in nursing homes, educational settings, or courthouses and are often trained to help keep patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other mental illness from harm or to reduce witness anxiety. They are handled by a trained staff member and live at the facility.

All of the different types of therapy dogs have one thing in common: they help **other people, **not their handlers. (Assistance dogs help their handlers.)

Remember, in the earlier posts within this American Alsatian Temperament unit, we talked about how American Alsatian dogs are more introverted and prefer one on one interactions with people, especially if they can have more intimate relationships. Well, if you were sick and frail in the hospital, would you prefer the more bubbly, outgoing socialite or the more calm, collected, intimate romantic? Personally, I want the more well-behaved debonair who can calmly and gently place its wolfish head on my lap as I look into its golden eyes and gently rub its forehead. That kind of instant connection to a large dog would be my ideal. I also wouldn't be worried about getting hurt by a more fluttery energetic type.

If I were recovering from a spinal injury and needed to learn to walk again, I would rather have a calm, solid dog to learn on than the cheerleader type of a dog. I would run my hands through the long soft fur of the American Alsatian and instantly feel secure.

Recently, therapy dogs that frequent courthouses have been commissioned to comfort children and adults who have been traumatized or victimized by someone they must face in court. It can be extremely debilitating to have to reveal intimate details or relive the experiences over and over through questioning before, during and after a trial. Dogs have been used as a way to comfort and aid in opening up a child's desire to share about their experiences. They may be more willing to tell a dog than a stranger. They may be braver walking onto that witness stand with a dog between them and their assailant. Now, imagine a sweet, cuddly dog that licks your tears away as you share how the man hurt you. That might be just the right remedy. But, also imagine a sturdy, menacing, frightening wolfish dog with an inner strength and confident poise. That type of dog might just give one the strength to say what needs to be said.

Again, just with our discussion regarding assistance dogs, not all American Alsatian dogs are able to fulfill this type of role. But, those who do possess a certain degree of confident resolve, especially those willing to share themselves intimately with strangers, would be great as assistance dogs and I hope we see more owners willing to share their American Alsatian dogs with others in need around their communities. Both Shawna and I are very interested in working with the courthouse. Once we obtain a little more wolfish appearance, perhaps this will be in our future through DireWolf Guardians.

Jennifer Stoeckl is the co-founder of the Dire Wolf Project, founder of the DireWolf Guardians American Alsatian Dog Training Program, and owner/operator of DireWolf Dogs of Vallecito. She lives in the beautiful inland northwest among the Ponderosa pine forests with her pack of American Alsatian dogs.