There’s nothing better than the feeling of helping other people—and training your dog as a therapy dog is a wonderful way to give back to your community. Not only can you bond with your best pal throughout the process, you can also make wonderful connections as you accompany them on therapy visits.
What is a therapy dog?
Therapy dogs are different than service dogs and emotional support animals. Service dogs undergo a rigorous education, learning to carry out complex tasks, before being adopted by people in need. Emotional support dogs do not require specialized training, but patients must obtain a medical letter of recommendation. Therapy dogs, on the other hand, typically remain with the same owners who train them.
These owners are considered part of the “therapy team,” along with the dog. After training and certification, the two of you can visit nursing homes, hospitals, schools, and other institutions to work with all kinds of people for short-term therapeutic treatment. These services may be prescribed to individual patients or offered to a community for anyone who’s interested. Therapy dogs can help people overcoming addiction, those with mental illness, disabled individuals, and others.
Young, well-socialized, friendly dogs in good health are the best candidates to become therapy dogs. After successful completion of behavioral classes, you can register with a national therapy dog organization, complete the required number of visits, then obtain the official Therapy Dog title.
What types of dogs can be therapy animals?
According to the American Kennel Club, “Therapy dog candidates should be naturally calm, friendly and affectionate to strangers. They also need to be well trained in basic obedience, able to easily adapt to novel noises, places, smells, and equipment. Therapy dog organizations also require that therapy dogs be healthy and have regular wellness check-ups and be well-groomed, clean and brushed at the time of all visits.” Dogs of any breed can become therapy pets.
Early socialization is key to ensuring well-adjusted, friendly pets who can adapt to many different settings. If you have a puppy, be sure to have them spend time around people of different genders, body types, ages, and personalities. Your dog should feel comfortable around people with facial hair, people wearing hats, and people with a variety of voices. You can use a system of positive rewards to help your pet stay calm and focused in any situation.
The AKC recommends that dogs pass the Canine Good Citizen test before enrolling in therapy-specific training. This 10-step test helps your pet demonstrate excellent behavior and responsiveness. You can train your pet independently to pass this test or look for classes offered by local organizations. After your pet obtains CGC status, you may also consider distraction-proofing classes or advanced CGC certification, which includes Community and Urban tests conducted in busy, real-life situations such as crowded sidewalks.
Pets who struggle to successfully complete these milestones likely aren’t good candidates to become therapy dogs.
Therapy dog certification requirements
Your dog must be at least one year old before they can register with a therapy dog organization, such as the Alliance of Therapy Dogs and Therapy Dogs International. Your pet’s vaccines must be up to date, as well. These organizations will conduct tests to ensure your pet’s readiness, as well as your capacity to handle and guide them.
For the therapy dog certification test, there may be specific expectations regarding the pet’s collar and leash, your footwear, and professional appearance for you and your pet. If your pet is overly shy—or displays unwanted behaviors such as jumping, barking, or mouthing—the tester may recommend that you return after further behavioral training, or when the dog is better socialized. If your dog displays overt aggression, the tester may recommend against pursuing therapy dog certification. However, any pet who has been able to obtain CGC certification should be able to pass the handling test without difficulty.
After therapy dog certification
Before you begin official visits, you may decide to offer a few home visits to people you know to help your pet get comfortable. This way, you can expose your pet to many new people and situations, and find out how your pet can benefit people in need of therapeutic support. Some pets will enjoy being pet and cuddled, while others may provide entertainment via tricks and an upbeat demeanor. These optional visits would not count toward earning the Therapy Dog title, but they are an excellent form of practice.
Once your pet passes the handling test and receives the go-ahead from your certifying organization, you can begin conducting visits to patients with participating organizations. Typically, the first few visits will be supervised by your certifying organization. Then, you will be authorized to make independent visits. Standard therapy dog certification through the AKC requires 50 visits. For certification purposes, be sure to keep careful records of each visit, including staff signatures from each institution visited. The AKC has a helpful form you can use.
Your certifying organization may offer a variety of classes to help your pet develop therapeutic skills, and regular therapy visits will help your dog put these skills into practice. Often, patients simply need a pet to sit calmly with them to provide meaningful support. You should seek out varied situations so that your pet accesses a wide range of experiences, which will help prepare them more thoroughly than 50 visits to the same location or with the same patients.
With the AKC Therapy Dog Title, your pet will likely be welcomed into more situations and may be invited to join a group of local therapy dog teams to make visits together. You can continue to document visits if you would like to seek out further titles: Advanced (100 visits), Excellent (200 visits), or Distinguished (400 visits). However, these are entirely optional and should not affect your pet’s opportunities to practice therapy.
Where can I take my therapy dog?
Over time, you will discover where your pet feels most at home and can make the greatest difference. Medical facilities are a popular place for therapy dogs; nursing homes, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and clinics are excellent outlets for your therapy pet. Educational programs often invite therapy dogs, as well. Early reading programs and other educational settings allow dogs to make wonderful connections, helping children gain confidence and reach important milestones. Some airports even offer therapy dog sessions now.
If you don’t see openings for therapy dogs locally, create your own opportunities. Talk to administrators about the benefits of canine therapy, which can alleviate conditions ranging from chronic pain to mental illness. Dogs are incredible companions for children who are less verbal than others, socially withdrawn, or exhibit fear easily.
Maybe you’ll be inspired to train more dogs—or you’ll find that your pet is particularly exceptional, and could make a great service dog as well. Whatever happens, the reward of volunteering as a therapy team is hard to beat. You’ll make friends (human and canine) that can last a lifetime and offer a much-needed service to people throughout your community. As you bond with your pet, you’ll see them become more empathetic, loving, and steadfast. There’s more than enough love to go around when you and your therapy dog bring your strength and devotion to the world.