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What’s a Therapy Dog?

Therapy dogs are trained to provide affection and support to humans. They visit hospitals, assisted living homes, courtrooms, counseling offices, schools, airports, and other facilities where they offer comfort and relieve stress.

In addition to providing opportunities for petting and support, some therapy dog/handler teams work with healthcare professionals to improve treatment outcomes (animal-assisted therapy) or participate in literacy (read-to-the-dogs) programs.

Therapy dogs do not enjoy special rights of access to housing, travel, or entry into businesses that do not permit pet dogs. Their training differs from that of service and emotional support dogs, who are trained to focus on a single person; therapy dogs interact with many people in different environments for short periods.

Therapy dog qualifications

To be a registered therapy dog, your dog should be:

  • At least 1 year old (the minimum age for some programs is 18 or 24 months).
  • Friendly, affectionate, and enjoy being petted by strangers.
  • Calm, quiet, and well behaved, possessing basic “good manners” skills.
  • Clean and well groomed.
  • Comfortable traveling to new locations.
  • More interested in interacting with people than with other animals.

The therapy dog/handler team is a unit. A dog and handler train together, are tested together, and make visits together. This means that you, the handler, have requirements, too. A therapy dog handler should:

  • Enjoy interacting with people.
  • Act as your dog’s advocate, always putting your dog’s needs first.
  • Learn therapy dog handling techniques.
  • Dress and behave professionally.

Caregivers Helping Senior Woman to Walk With a Dog In Retirement Home

Therapy dog training requirements

In animal-assisted therapy programs, therapy dogs and their handlers work under the direction of healthcare professionals to help clients achieve specific goals.

There are no standard courses that must be completed in order for your dog to become a therapy dog, though some programs, such as Pet Partners and Intermountain Therapy Animals, require prospective handlers to attend training workshops without their dogs.

That said, all therapy dog organizations screen dog/handler teams. Some dog trainers and pet supply stores like Petco offer therapy dog training classes as preparation for these entry level exams.  Most preparation classes include the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test. In the CGC test, dogs are expected to:

  • Accept being petted by a friendly stranger and sit politely for petting.
  • Be clean and well groomed.
  • Walk calmly on a loose leash.
  • Walk calmly through a crowd of moving people.
  • Sit and stay on cue; come when called.
  • Walk calmly past another dog.
  • Respond calmly to a noise distraction.
  • Remain calm while the handler leaves the room for 3 minutes.

Skills that will be tested

Most therapy dog organizations use all or part of the CGC test as a skills test, then add behaviors that demonstrate an aptitude for therapy work. In this part of the test, dogs are expected to interact with people in a friendly way and:

  • Stay relaxed during an overall exam (thorough handling of all body parts).
  • Stay calm during exuberant, clumsy petting.
  • Stay calm during a restraining hug.
  • Stay calm and friendly during role-play with a person in a wheelchair.
  • Recover quickly from distractions like angry yelling, bumps from behind, or role-play with someone using a walker.
  • Stay calm while being petted by several people.
  • Ignore distractions like toys or food.
  • Accept a treat gently.

How do I get my therapy dog certified?

While the term “certification” is used by some therapy dog organizations, most prefer the term “registration.”  Anyone can purchase from online sources an official-looking therapy dog vest, certificate, and ID badge, but what matters to facilities that welcome therapy dogs is their training, screening, and liability insurance. Online sites that register or certify therapy dogs for a fee don’t provide these essentials, which makes their credentials meaningless.

In contrast, legitimate therapy dog organizations offer handler support and training, opportunities to visit prescreened facilities, social events for dogs and handlers – and, importantly, they provide liability insurance to dog/handler teams who are registered members in good standing. Membership fees, background checks, dog health/age/breed requirements, renewal schedules, and volunteer time commitments vary.

Important concepts for handlers

Therapy dogs are the stars of every visit, but their handlers’ support is crucial. Proactive therapy dog handlers anticipate problems and protect their dogs from uncomfortable situations. As Kathy Klotz, executive director of Intermountain Therapy Animals, explains:

  • Dogs are true partners, not pieces of equipment to trot out when it serves our own needs and desires. They should be respected, honored, and appreciated.
  • Dogs’ intuition usually exceeds our own as to who most needs their attention and even what that attention should look like.
  • Only a few dogs (some experts estimate only 10%) have the appropriate temperament to truly enjoy therapy work. A dog who doesn’t want the job will make no connection with clients, no magic will happen, and the handler will not find visits rewarding at all.
  • Therapy dogs who enjoy their work willingly consent to receiving greetings, petting, and hugs. Handlers need to be proactive so that no client interacts with their partners in any way that the animals don’t enjoy. Therapy dogs must never be required to “put up” with anything that’s beyond their capacity or tolerance.
How Can I Learn More?

To ascertain which of the national therapy-dog organizations would be a good fit for you and your dog, see their websites (listed below), which explain animal-assisted interactions in detail and describe the organizations’ different approaches and requirements.

The following books are also valuable resources:

Teaming with Your Therapy Dog
by Ann R. Howie, Purdue University Press, 2015

Becoming a Therapy Dog Team: Guidance and Advice
      by Katha Miller-Winder, Ph.D., independently published, 2021

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