How to Prepare for a Pet Partners Evaluation


Tips for the Skills and Aptitude Exercises

About this Page

I have seen naturally great teams come to evaluations totally unprepared and receive perfect scores. On the other hand, my inspiration for writing these tips came from watching so many teams make unnecessary mistakes, and wanting to help others avoid them.

I highly recommend that you read Preparing for Your Evaluation and its 5 subtopics. Beyond that, study my tips for any exercise you struggle with in practice.

A number of my tips are what I call “head bangers,” unnecessary mistakes that can easily be avoided. You’ll know them by the graphic, which expresses exactly how they make me feel!

Knowing the pitfalls and how to practice to avoid them should greatly help you to succeed. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions, or tips to offer to help others.

Peter Christensen

Preparing for Your Evaluation

Volunteering at an Evaluation

The best way to get the feel of an evaluation is to volunteer at one. You’ll learn what is expected of you and your animal as you see teams pass, and learn even more as you see teams fail. Volunteers play the role of a client being visited by the team being evaluated.

This video provides a demonstration of a Pet Partners evaluation.

Practice, Practice, and More Practice

If I asked you to walk across a room, would it make you nervous? Of course not. And if you practice the exercises of the evaluation enough, they won’t make you nervous, either. And what about your animal? It it’s nervous, it’s likely getting most of it from you.

Here’s a real head banger borrowed from the Skills Exercise, Come When Called:

When the handler switches their leash to the 10 foot line provided by their evaluator, they often remove their leash before attaching the line. This leaves their animal completely unattached, after their evaluator has just told them how to do it properly.

Obviously nerves got the best of them, and they were neither listening to their evaluator nor thinking clearly. But it’s a great example of how practice can make an evaluation go more smoothly.

The solution is to practice the exercises correctly until they become a matter of routine. Like walking across a room.

Simulating an Evaluation

As I wrote above, most of your animal’s nervousness likely comes from your being nervous. But it can also come from being asked to perform in a new environment, and with new people.

When I felt my second dog was ready, we started practicing the evaluation exercises in my home. Everything was going well, so I arranged to practice at a neighbor’s.

We were doing fine there, too, until she went to touch his feet and give him a hug. I was shocked! He was my cuddle-bug, and I was sure he’d have no problems interacting with other people. But when he bolted, and I realized the only time anyone had ever touched his feet or held him firmly was to trim his nails.

Are you thinking this is an obscure problem that doesn’t relate to your animal? The fact that it is such an obscure problem brings home the point that you don’t know what will show up until you actually practice the exercises of the evaluation with others outside your home.

But your neighbor’s home isn’t much like the room you’ll be evaluating in, so you also need to visit different environments. Home Depot, Lowes, PetCo and PetSmart all allow people to bring dogs inside; check with them about other species. And make sure they understand it’s not a service animal.

You may be surprised to find how helpful shoppers will be if you ask them to role play an exercise with you. But you’re going there to practice, not to be social. So before you allow them to make contact, explain that you are practicing for a therapy animal evaluation and that you would like them to behave in a business-like manner.

Here are some key exercises to practice in a new setting:

  • Accepting a Friendly Stranger: Your dog should stay by your side when you greet the stranger.
  • Walk Through a Crowd: Your dog should keep to your side as you navigate around the others.
  • Sit & Down on Command: These are so easy at home that you might not think to practice them in another environment. But many times an evaluation is going just fine until the dog is asked to sit, at which time it blanks-out under the stress.
  • Come When Called
  • Reaction to a Neutral Dog: This is a great exercise to practice in a new environment if you can arrange for another team to meet you. Keep the dogs from seeing each other until you attempt the exercise.
  • Crowded and Petted by Several People

Remember to resist being too friendly to others or you won’t be creating a stressful environment similar to an evaluation.

Your Performance Counts, Too

The evaluation score sheets are divided in two with one side for the handler and the other for the animal. You each receive a score for every exercise, and are assigned the lower of your two scores. To be successful, you must be both proactive and interactive with your animal, the evaluator, and the volunteers.

In my first evaluation, the volunteers weren’t instructed to play their parts correctly. Aptitude Exercises Staggering and Gesturing Individual and Angry Yelling were conducted simultaneously, with the volunteers all acting out at the same time. Then instead of quieting down and warmly calling my dog to come to them for a visit, they abruptly turned and hurriedly walked toward us like a pack of Zombies!

I instinctively reached down and picked my little dog up, in the same moment worrying that I would be marked up for my behavior. And was I ever! Marked up positively for being proactive.

Always be involved in the process, just as you would be on a visit. This means that you will be handling your animal along with the evaluator and volunteers, and interacting with the evaluator and volunteers rather than standing by as an observer.

Bend over or crouch down along with the evaluator and volunteers. And touch your animal to give it assurance that it is safe with you in this strange environment.

If you are physically unable to get down with your animal, explain your situation to your evaluator so that they will not misinterpret your lack of involvement.

It might not be necessary to be so close to your animal with every interaction at a facility where you and your animal have become comfortable and confident. But it is necessary anytime you encounter a situation that might be stressful, like in an evaluation!

Evaluation Day

Plan to arrive early enough that you are not rushed. Even better, allow yourself time to go for a walk to get into a relaxed, confident state of mind.

Avoid interacting with other teams. You are being evaluated from the time you arrive to the time you leave, and should the animals misbehave both teams could be deemed Not Ready.

Here’s a checklist to ensure that you’ve prepared properly:

  • Your animal should be bathed within 24 hours, groomed, and wearing the same equipment you will use on your visits.

    For a list of acceptable equipment, see the Pet Partners Handler Guide or watch the video Acceptable Equipment. Note that while bandanas and vests may be worn during visits, they may not be worn during a team’s first evaluation.

  • You should be looking professional with no jeans, shorts, t-shirts, open-toe shoes or smell of strong perfume, cologne, tobacco or alcohol.
  • Be sure to give your animal the opportunity to potty before your evaluation begins.
  • Be prepared to discuss your animal’s stress signs (see Skills Exercise, Review Handler’s Questionnaire Form).
  • Be prepared to present the following items to your evaluator upon entering the facility:
    • Certificate of Course Completion or your ID badge if you are renewing
    • Completed Handler’s Questionnaire
    • Proof of current rabies vaccination such as a certificate, vaccination records from your vet, or a signed Animal Health Screening Form
    • Animal Health Screening Forms are available in the Resource Library of the Pet Partners Volunteer Center. They are submitted with your registration after passing your evaluation, and are not required at your evaluation unless used as proof of rabies vaccination.
    • Animals exempt from this requirement include rabbits, guinea pigs, rats and birds.
    • A treat for your animal for the Offered a Treat exercise (treats are otherwise not allowed during your evaluation)
    • A soft brush without any rigid plastic or metal
    • A towel, small blanket or basket, if your animal will be placed on a table or laps
    • You would do well to place all these items in a separate bag, ready to hand to your evaluator!
  • There are additional requirements for children, and those evaluating with animals they do not own. Check with your instructor or evaluator.

A reminder of some things you must avoid as they could get you a Not Ready:

  • Forgetting to role play throughout the entire evaluation as if you are on a visit.
  • Raising your voice, speaking to your animal harshly, or jerking its leash.
  • Dropping your leash.
  • Your animal jumping up on a person or piece of equipment.
  • Your animal vocalizing more than once or twice out of stress or excitement.
  • Your animal licking a person more than once or twice. (more)
  • Your animal mouthing a person or piece of equipment, e.g., its leash.
  • Your animal crossing your midline to reach the neutral dog. (more)

And finally, you must be proactive and practice PETS and YAYABA during the entire time you are at the evaluation site. If you are not familiar with these terms (described in the Pet Partners Handler Guide), you are not ready to evaluate.

There is never a reason your animal should be out of reach to you, except in the Stay in Place and Come When Called exercises.

Loose Leash Heeling

One of the ways handlers demonstrate good control over their animal is to show that they can walk it on a loose leash. Caution should be taken, however, that the leash is not unnecessarily long.

Our animals are not expected to perform on their own as if they are being judged in an obedience trial; they are expected to perform well with the guidance of a proactive handler. Your leash should be short enough that you can readily guide your animal back to your side should it begin to wander.

If you use a long leash at home, consider using a 4-foot leash for evaluating and visiting. Since your dog should always be within reach, a longer leash only becomes a burden.

What exactly is a loose leash?

If you tell someone that their leash is too tight, they will invariably lengthen it. Most often this simply places their animal further from their side, where it is not as easily controlled. And their leash remains tight.

The most perfect demonstration of loose leash heeling I have seen was with a dog whose collar naturally fell about 6 inches from the handler’s hand. Using only 9 inches of leash – just an extra 3 inches – they were able to demonstrate loose leash heeling to perfection.

Evaluators are not looking for a leash that is long; they are looking for a leash that is not tight. As you see in the photo to the right, the clasp is hanging down.

Earning a Complex Rating

A loose lead is required for a Complex rating, while some tight lead is acceptable for a Predictable rating. A tight lead will earn you a Not Ready.

A dog that is heeling well is walking with their handler, both physically and mentally. Keeping your dog’s attention will help greatly in reducing the chances that it will try to wander off toward something more interesting.

You are not ready to visit if your dog pulls you, chases after those you pass, or wants to stop to smell. Walking at a good pace my help to make distractions less tempting.

Be sure to speak to your dog during the heeling exercises to give it guidance and hold its attention, and maintain the mindset that you are demonstrating loose leash heeling to your evaluator.

Holding Your Leash with Both Hands

Holding your leash with both hands can be treacherous. There will be times when you need a free hand, and if you let go with the wrong hand you will lose control of your animal.

For example, in the exercise Accepting a Friendly Stranger, your animal must stay by your side when you greet your evaluator and shake their hand. If your animal is on your left, you can let go of the end of the leash in your right hand to shake hands.

But if your animal is on your right, you should shake with your left hand. If you let go of your leash with your right hand, your animal will be free to move forward and you won’t be able to proactively reach down and stop it.

If you hold your leash with both hands, remember to never let go with the hand that’s closest to your animal.

Important Information about the Tips

In order for the tips to be meaningful, you must first become familiar with the description of each exercise as presented in the Pet Partners Handler Guide. You will also want to review both the evaluation overview and score sheets for your species, which will provide detail and indicate which of the exercises are performed for your species.

Pet Partners therapy animals can be dogs, cats, birds, guinea pigs, miniature pigs, rabbits, horses, donkeys, llamas, alpacas, and domesticated rats.

In the tips presented on this page, you will find a little information on how an exercise differs for different species. But these are not complete instructions on how the evaluation is conducted for that species.

It is important that you obtain detailed information on how your evaluation will be conducted for your particular species.

Information for your species is available in the Resource Library of the Pet Partners Volunteer Center. You will find the evaluation overview and score sheets for your species, along with other helpful information.

Follow along on the evaluation overview for your species as you study each of the exercises below.

Predictable and Complex Ratings

Each exercise in the evaluation is scored a 1, 2, or Not Ready. If you receive a score of Not Ready in any exercise, your evaluation will be stopped.

Predictable: To receive a Predictable rating, you must receive a score of 1 or 2 in every exercise.
Complex: To receive a Complex rating, you must receive a score of 1 or 2 in every exercise, and you must be receive a score of 2 in the 9 exercises marked with a ♦.

Both you and your animal are scored independently, and the lower of your two scores is used to score the exercise. Therapy animal work truly is a team effort, and this is reflected in the scoring of the evaluation.

How My Dog’s Beard Helped Me Earn a Complex Rating

Muka doesn’t like his beard touched, so a gazillion times a week I have to say, “Muka doesn’t like his beard touched, but he loves to be petted anywhere else.” Then I demonstrate.

A gazillion times a week? Oh, bother! But it’s perfect training for an evaluation.

Have you got an animal that loves to be touched everywhere? That thinks it’s playtime when talked to loudly or touched roughly? That loves to be hugged? Does this not make the perfect, tolerant therapy animal?

Could be, but it could also set you up to fail your evaluation with a score of Not Ready. That’s what will happen if you sit back and watch your animal enjoying the interactions with your evaluator and the volunteers.

Not everyone knows how to interact with an animal properly, and Pet Partners expects you to be proactive and guide your clients in your interactions. Carefully review the left side of the evaluation score sheets for your species to see what you need to do to pass your evaluation.