Training Therapy Dogs: Can Your Pup Help People?
Therapy dogs bring joy and comfort to people’s lives, particularly when they are facing tough challenges such as medical concerns, loneliness or stress. Volunteering alongside your dog as part of a therapy dog team is a caring and empathetic thing to do, but your dog has to have the right temperament and training to succeed.
Let’s take a look at the process for training a therapy dog and see how you and Fido can earn your therapy dog certification together!
What is a Therapy Dog?
There’s almost no limit to the ways in which dogs can help people in need — and that means the many different terms can be confusing!
It is important to be aware that therapy dogs, service dogs and emotional support animals (also called comfort animals) are three different types of assistance dogs. As the American Kennel Club explains:
“Therapy dogs are not service dogs, who provide a specific service for a person with special needs, and who receive full public access per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They are also not emotional support animals, who require a prescription from a mental health or health care professional but need no special training or certifications to do their job.”
Furthermore, there are two main categories of therapy dog: animal-assisted therapy dogs and therapeutic visitation dogs.
Animal-assisted therapy dogs essentially have a “full-time job” working alongside speech therapists, psychologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, school counselors and more. This is the type of therapy dog that you may see comforting victims in court, helping children read out loud or providing a steadying presence for patients with poor balance.
Animal-assisted therapy dogs work with designated handlers from their medical, educational or legal facility, and often have a full daily schedule. When their 9-5 ends, these dogs may live with their handler or at the facility itself.
Therapeutic visitation dogs are more like canine volunteers. These dogs take a few hours out of their day to go into nursing homes, hospitals and any other situation where a wagging tail would be welcome. As described by Labrador Training HQ:
“These types of therapy dogs are unlikely to be trained to complete specific tasks. Rather, they are trained to be calm and friendly, attentive to the person they are with, and simply pass time with humans in a supportive way.”
Therapeutic visitation dogs are handled by their owner, and live as everyday pets. Canine therapeutic visits may also be referred to as “animal-assisted activities” to distinguish them from more formalized “animal-assisted therapy.”
For our purposes here, when we discuss training your dog as a therapy dog, will we be referring to preparing your pup to be a therapeutic visitation dog.
What Do Therapy Dogs Do?
The list of facilities where certified therapeutic visitation teams may be welcomed is almost endless!
Anywhere there are people who may benefit from some fluffy puppy time, you’ll find dedicated canine therapy teams offering their services. That includes nursing homes, hospitals, rehab facilities, clinics, hospice care, juvenile detention centers, educational settings like schools and libraries, and even more unusual settings such as airports or emergency disaster areas.
Therapy dogs provide assistance to the people they meet in these places through their comforting and heartwarming presence. This simple service is extremely beneficial! Just petting a therapy dog is known to boost levels of oxytocin: a powerful hormone that improves mood, reduces stress, and lowers heart rate and blood pressure.
A comforting canine companion provides a welcome distraction from day-to-day struggles, and can have an incredible effect on a person’s confidence and sociability. For example, a dog may prompt a formerly uncommunicative nursing home resident to fondly reminisce about their own childhood pets, or encourage a shy student to confide in the pup’s listening ear.
In fact, a recent UCLA Health study on the impact of therapy dogs visiting patients in a hospital found that the presence of the therapy dogs noticeably lowered patients’ anxiety level, stress level and blood pressure. The lead author of the study, clinical nurse Kathie M. Cole, concluded:
"This study demonstrates that even a short-term exposure to dogs has beneficial physiological and psychosocial effects on patients who want it…This therapy warrants serious consideration as an adjunct to medical therapy in hospitalized heart failure patients. Dogs are a great comfort. They make people happier, calmer and feel more loved. That is huge when you are scared and not feeling well."
How Are Therapy Dogs Trained (And Can My Dog Be One?)
Do you want to help people? Does your dog adore everyone they meet? Do you think your pup is ready to share the love?
If you’ve ever wondered if your precious pooch can become a therapy dog, the answer is — Yes!
As long as they have the right personality and training and they’re in good health, any dog can be a therapy dog. There are no breed restrictions; “mutts” and mixed-breeds welcome!
There’s also no age limit on how old or young your dog can be, provided they are adults (over a year old). Even if your puppy can’t be certified yet, you can definitely start training and socializing them in preparation.
Likewise, if you think your middle-aged or even elderly pup has what it takes to bring comfort to people in need, go for it! Many residents of nursing homes or assisted living facilities feel an instant kinship when they see the graying muzzle of a fellow senior citizen.
When it comes to becoming a therapy dog, there are two key factors more important than your pup’s breed, age or anything else: it all comes down to Fido’s temperament and training.
Temperament of a Therapy Dog
Most dogs enjoy having a “job,” but that doesn’t mean any dog is right for any job. Even if your heart is in the right place with your dream of training a therapy dog, you should still make an honest assessment of your dog’s personality before you begin.
In order to succeed as a therapy dog, your pup must be naturally calm and laid-back. They can’t be easily distracted or easily startled. Your dog must be “owner-focused” and keep their attention on you, but also be okay if they can’t see you for a second; i.e., they don’t have separation anxiety.
It’s also important that your pup’s calm demeanor is not so low-key that they won’t acknowledge the people they’re visiting! Your dog should be social and friendly, and should genuinely enjoy interacting with all kinds of people.
Think about it: when you’re out volunteering with your dog as a therapy team, you don’t want your pup to be shy and clearly wanting to go home. On the other hand, your dog also can’t be so friendly that they become rambunctious or jumpy. You don’t want your dog knocking over a child or an elder in their enthusiasm!
Finally, your pup must be tolerant of being touched, even by multiple people or in clumsy or awkward ways. They can’t have any “no-go” spots, such as their ears, feet or tail, where they won’t tolerate being petted.
Above all, your dog must be “nonreactive”: not going to growl or nip, no matter what. This is a big ask, as almost any dog will defend themselves if scared enough — which is why your dog needs to be naturally confident, and not get uncomfortable or overwhelmed in unfamiliar situations.
If you suspect that volunteering as a therapy dog may not be right for your pup, you owe it to your dog (and to yourself) to be willing to acknowledge that. And if that’s the case, don’t let it get you down. Even if your pup’s only “job” is to be your loving companion, we know they are perfect for that role!
Training a Therapy Dog
Perhaps surprisingly, training a therapy dog doesn’t always require a professional dog trainer. If you’re confident and willing to put in the work, it’s very possible to train your own pup to meet what’s expected of a therapy dog. As long as you can pass the certification process, you’re good to go!
That being said, most therapy dog organizations do recommend taking obedience classes with your dog to make sure the basics are solid. But don’t worry; you won’t be forced to seek out a specialized “therapy dog training course.”
Almost all therapy dog organizations will require your pal to pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen test first. Even if they don’t, it’s likely their own evaluation process will be similar, so it’s still helpful to review this test until you’re confident your dog can fulfill all 10 parts.
There usually aren’t any specific commands that your dog needs to know, beyond basic obedience — but they do need to have all their basic commands down pat! Your pal must be able to sit, stay, and come back to you reliably, regardless of circumstances.
Your dog will also need to be an expert at “Leave It.” This is one of the most important commands for any working dog. You need to be able to instruct your dog to not engage with dangerous items, to “chase” or “herd”, or to eat any food that is left out or even offered to them. “Leave It” is also how you’ll tell your pup not to interact with people who are uncomfortable or even afraid of your dog.
Remember: when it comes to training your dog, it all comes down to using the right reward! Once you’ve identified your pup’s favorite high-value training treat, you’ll be “paying” them in a currency they’re happy to work for. The right reward will keep your dog motivated and attentive and ensure your pup’s progress is that much smoother.
Finally, your dog will also need general socialization skills and to be comfortable in many different environments. Therapy dogs need to be able to stay calm in unfamiliar circumstances, so get in the habit of taking your pup out to meet many different kinds of people in as many different situations as possible.
Before you enter Fido for therapy dog certification, ask yourself: Do very large people (or very small people!) make your pup nervous? Are you certain that your dog won’t be alarmed by wheelchairs, walkers, beeping medical equipment, loud children or anything else foreign to them? Once you can confidently say your dog is “bomb-proof”, you may be ready at last!
Overall, while training a therapy dog takes time and commitment, if you’re determined and your dog has the right personality it can be done! And if you do have trouble with certain behaviors or you just want to be extra-sure, don’t be afraid to hire a professional dog trainer to help you and Fido on your therapy dog journey.
Therapy Dog Certification
If you’ve been training hard together and you’re confident that your pup has what it takes, it’s time to pass muster!
There are many therapy dog organizations across the country, and they each have their own process and requirements — although they all aim to certify calm, obedient and friendly dogs.
You and Fido may have to pass multiple tests, such as the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test or the organization’s own test. The organization may also have an evaluator shadow you and your dog in simulated or real-life therapy situations. Afterwards, they may require occasional check-ups or ongoing training to keep your certification.
Always check with the organization you plan to certify with if you’re not sure what you’ll have to do to get your credentials. For further details, reach out to a local therapy dog organization or connect with a nearby representative from Alliance of Therapy Dogs, one of the most reputable national therapy dog organizations.
What Can You Do Once Your Dog is Certified?
Once you and Fido are a bona fide therapy team, it’s time to go help people! Some facilities may reach out to your certifying organization and ask for volunteers, or they may have an ongoing therapy dog schedule or program.
But then again, some facilities may not! While your certifying organization will give you the best guidance, you shouldn’t be afraid to call up a nursing home or school and just ask if they’d be interested in welcoming a therapy dog for a few hours. If they seem skeptical or don’t know much about it, that gives you the opportunity to explain the many benefits that therapy dogs provide. The facility may politely decline — or, they may give you and your pup a chance to prove the healing power of a four-legged friend!
Be aware of your organization’s requirements. Many therapy dog organizations require you to stay active in order to stay certified, which may mean making a therapeutic visit at least once every couple of months or a certain number of times per year, for example.
One important tip to remember if you were certified with a local therapy dog organization (not a national organization like Alliance of Therapy Dogs): Being certified with one organization does not mean you are certified with another.
So, if you are certified in one town or state and then move, you may wish to recertify with a local organization before you resume volunteering. Always check with the facility you intend to visit. Some facilities may only recognize certification from their local therapy organization, for instance.
Finally, it’s important to remember that therapy dogs are not service dogs and do not have the same legal rights. Therefore, your pup can’t necessarily follow you everywhere. Even though you know your pup is well-mannered and obedient, never misrepresent your dog as a service dog just so they can join you on a plane or in a restaurant.
Therapy dogs play an invaluable role in helping people who are facing challenging circumstances to feel better, have more confidence and face the rest of the day with a smile!
If you’re committed and build up a strong partnership with your pup, there’s every possibility that the two of you can become a certified therapy team, too. After all, we know there’s no limit to the love that our dogs can give — so why not share the snuggles with those who need it most?