Could your dog be a Friendship Dog? Assessor Karen Gibson tells how?

Not every dog will be happy to be a Wag dog. I tend to have four dogs at a time and only one at a time has ever been suitable (and happy) to be a Wag dog.  One was too old, one too nervous, one too grumpy, but all my lovely dogs!   

We try to make sure the assessment is enjoyable and as relaxed as possible. The dog owner can help, encourage, support, reward their dog as they would in any normal situation. At any point if they felt their dog was uncomfortable they would just discuss it with he assessor.

The assessment – or key elements of it – is always video’d for Wag’s records.

A typical temperament assessment looks like this;  although there may be slight differences or the order depending on venues and the assessors and helpers.

When you get to the venue you take the dog for a comfort break, then wait in your car until you are collected.

Once the assessor has come to collect you, the assessment starts ie as soon as you get your dog out of the car. 

The dog will be held on a fixed lead using a comfortable, flat neck collar or properly fitted body harness.  No chain or half check collars can be used.

The assessor will be looking, in particular, at how the dog walks on a loose lead, appropriate greeting behaviour – not jumping up, and general demeanour. The assessor will be observing the dog and the owner/hander, the ‘team’, throughout the assessment.

Your ID will be checked and the dog should be given some time to acclimatise to the venue, this will be different depending on the dog.

Your dog will be exposed to the ‘stooge dog’. They do not have to become best friends, but your dog should be able to walk calmly with you while the stooge dog is visible to your dog. 

My Wag dog ‘Seren’ helps with this aspect  of the assessment.

The assessor will stroke the dog all over to ensure the dog is happy to be touched in all places. 

The assessor asks you to ask your dog to hold a position, sit, down, stand whichever the dog is happiest doing, and will pause to explain the procedure to you. This also checks the dog can remain calmly with you while you are having a conversation.

The assessor or helper will ‘bump’ the dog, (if possible – sometimes it looks like a dance as the helper tries to bump the dog) and then apologise. 

A loud alarm or timer, will go off, the dog can be interested in this noise, but should recover quickly, as mentioned, the handler can support the dog, e.g. good girl, that’s ok, reward for calm behaviour.

The handler will be asked how they would tell if their dog was stressed and what they would do in that situation. This is not a trick question, each dog may react to stress in different ways, e.g. ears back, tail down, moving closer to the handler, it may be a small change in posture / behaviour – if you are not sure watch your dog for signs of stress. Do not put them in a situation where you think they would be stressed to practice, just practice watching your dog.

You will also be asked what you would do if you saw your dog was stressed. As with any animal including humans, if they become stressed you want to remove what is stressing them, or remove them from the stressful situation.

The dog will then be crowded, the size of the crowd will depend on the number of helpers who will be trying to get in close and stroke your dog.

(Seren always gathers a crowd of strokers when we visit our care home).

The handler will be asked to walk past some food, usually biscuits, at the dog’s head height, to ensure they will not grab and eat what they should not. This may also be done sitting at a table or chairs. Also a piece of food will be dropped, which the dog should not attempt to get to.  Just think it could be a tablet belonging to an older person. 

In both cases the dog may be reminded to ‘leave’ the food, but not pulled or held away by the lead.

The handler will be asked to treat the dog then the assessor will treat the dog. (Please ensure you have some suitable treats for your dog). 

It does not matter if your dog is not interested or does not eat the treats, some don’t, but most people like to treat dogs if they are allowed. This is to check they will take treats gently and not snatch. 

The assessor and helper will then pretend to have an argument which will become louder then fade and a walking stick will be dropped. Your dog should be able to cope without becoming too stressed and recover quickly.

The assessor will ask if the dog can be stroked and explain that the stroking will gradually become harder;  if you as the handler feel at any time the dog has had enough or you feel for whatever reason the handler should stop, please say so, you are responsible for your dog and keeping him/her safe.

The helper will walk towards the dog with an unsteady gait using a walking stick and making unusual and loud noises. This is done with care not to scare the dog but to make sure they, and the handler, can manage a situation like this, and will stop immediately if necessary, or if the handler asks it to be stopped.

And breathe…

The assessor will then discuss the assessment with you, hopefully all will have gone well, most do, however, if there are any areas of concern, perhaps where further training would make a difference, these will be explained so you can understand the decision made that day. 

Sometimes, the adjustment is quite small and easy to resolve after a short period putting the assessor’s advice into practice;  a follow up assessment would then be arranged. 

“We thoroughly enjoy the temperament assessments, meeting lovely dogs and their owners and knowing that we are enabling older people, who can no longer keep their own dog, to have the safe and regular company of an exceptional dog friend and their owner. 

I am also a visiting volunteer and in 2016 my beautiful Madge, a black lab, qualified as a special Wag Friendship Dog;  we visited for about a year until Madge died, too young and too soon.  It took nearly 2 years to find and to ‘grow’ Seren who absolutely loves visiting her friends.  

I know first hand the benefits and difference a Visiting Wag Team can make.  I love seeing people smile and their eyes light up when they say  “look it’s the dog or it’s Seren.

I get a great buzz from knowing that the lovely dogs we’ve just assessed are going to go on and help make such a difference, just like Madge and Seren.”

Karen Gibson 

March 2021