Have you wanted to do more with your dog but are not sure what? Maybe you’re wondering about giving back in some way. I thought the same thing. Actually, I adopted my dog, Henry with this intent. So, what are the therapy dog requirements and what does your dog need to do in order to become one? Heck, what is a therapy dog anyhow? Today, let’s dig into the world of therapy dogs and find out if it’s something you want to explore with your dog.
*Updated: February 21, 2023
Budget Tip: You may be surprised to know how much not only your dog learns and grows as your progress through therapy lessons, but you and your dog do together. Even if you don't become a therapy team, the lessons you gain and the bonds you strengthen with your dog are priceless. Additionally, if you take lessons through a big company, like Petsmart or PetCo, you'll be able to use coupons. Or you may even be able to find online therapy classes at a great price. It's a win for you and your dog, regardless of the outcome. And it's a great activity to save or account for in your dog budget.
What exactly is a therapy dog?
A therapy dog provides comfort and love to people for various reasons. Generally, put the person is undergoing some sort of stressful situation. This could be learning to read, medical treatments, testifying in court, or even end-of-life transition. A therapy dog can visit a person in a number of different places, including hospitals, schools, airports, and rehabilitation centers.
What isn’t a therapy dog?
While therapy dogs are pretty amazing with the comfort they provide, they shouldn’t be confused with service dogs. To be clear service dogs are specially trained to help people with certain needs, like a seeing-eye dog. Additionally, therapy dogs are not emotional support animals.
What are the benefits of a therapy dog?
- Reduce stress
- Increases self-esteem
- Decreases blood pressure and heart rate
- Increases oxytocin
- Increases endorphins
Additionally, studies show that therapy dogs get as much benefit from their work as they give with increased oxytocin (the feel-good hormone) and endorphins (the body’s natural pain reliever).
How do I make my dog a therapy dog?
When I was looking to adopt my dog, Henry, I was specific about getting a dog that could be a therapy dog for kids and go into hospitals or rehabilitation centers. After I had him for a while, I expanded this to include other facilities such as libraries and schools.
Nevertheless, I learned exactly what to look for and what steps to take once I selected my candidate therapy dog.
These were my goals for Henry. It was part of my dog search criteria. You may have different goals.
How to train your dog to be a therapy dog?
This can vary a bit depending on the therapy dog program you want to join. Alliance of therapy dogs is one of the biggest organizations. However, most programs will have a prerequisite of the Canine Good Citizen award. This is an AKC program involving an evaluation of 10 obedience commands. Additionally, the handler is generally required to subscribe to the AKC Responsible Dog Owner’s Pledge, which generally states the dog owner will take good care of their dog’s health, safety, and respect others’ rights.
What’s involved in the Canine Good Citizen award
- Accepting a friendly stranger
- Sitting politely for petting
- Appearance and grooming
- Walking on a loose leash
- Walking through a crowd
- Sit, down, stay on command
- Come when called
- Reactions to other dogs (really you want little to no reactions)
- Reaction to distractions (the dog can show a natural interest, but shouldn’t be scared, panic, bark, shy away, or show aggression)
- Supervised separation (this is only a three-minute separation and the dog must stay positive and not be going into panic mode when separated from its handler)
There are many dog training classes that offer “therapy” classes. These prepare the dog and handler for what they may encounter. Once you have completed these classes you’ll want to have your dog and you certified as a therapy team.
Henry enjoyed all his therapy classes and passed all his tests with flying colors. Yep, I’m a proud dog mom. Who wouldn’t be proud of their pup?
What are the requirements for a therapy dog?
Basically, a therapy dog should be:
- Affectionate including toward strangers
- Well-mannered and trained in all basic commands
- Easy going with odd places, noises, smells, equipment, uniforms, etc.
- Well-groomed (most therapy organizations will require the dog to be bathed at least the day prior to a visit)
Are there certain breeds of dogs that are best for therapy dogs?
Nope. Any dog could be a good candidate – rescue, full breed, any breed, mixed breed. It really doesn’t matter as long as the dog meets the requirements discussed above. However, there is an age restriction. Most therapy dog organizations require the dog to be at least one year of age.
How to get a dog registered as a therapy dog?
So, you’ve gone through all the obedience and therapy classes and you want to get you and your dog certified and registered. Now what? You’ll need to find a therapy organization that will do the certification. These are done in person and usually in a group of other dogs.
Often your therapy dog trainer will provide a list of local observers for the certification. During this part, an observer or TO will monitor you and your dog at a facility (this could be a library, hospice, hospital, etc.) for three and as many as 10 visits.
The observer will be watching for and monitoring to see how you work as a team. Additionally, the TO will watch for
- Friendlessness with strangers
- How well do your dog and you follow directions
- Overall manners (that’s for both dog and partner)
Once you and your dog have successfully completed all your required monitor visits, then you will be a certified therapy team!
This is the last step I have not taken with Henry. As time has gone on, he has gotten more excited with people and anything he thinks might play with him. So, instead of stressing myself out, and in turn him, I decided perhaps “King Henry” is not meant for therapy. He’s just my therapy dog.
Once certified where can you and your dog volunteer your services?
- Rehabilitation Centers
- Hospice Units
- Veteran Organizations
- Emergency Shelters
Basically, you can go where ever you are asked or have permission.
Note: Shortly after I rescued Henry, I got a call from a friend who’s mom was in an Alzheimer’s facility. She wanted me to bring Henry to the facility. I explained Henry wasn’t trained. She encouraged me to call the facility and talk with them. I did and Henry made his first non-official therapy visit. He did a superb job! He was well mannered, calm, and respectful of everyone. I couldn’t have been more proud of my little pup.
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Summary of does your dog meet the therapy dog requirements?
The process of taking your dog from a loving family dog to a therapy dog is a journey of self-discovery. What you think may happen, might surprise you in the end. However, if you are able to get to the finish line of being a therapy dog team, it’s undoubtedly a rewarding one. Henry and I got a taste of it and it was very gratifying. If you’ve been thinking of how you or your dog can help others in a bigger way, then I encourage you to explore the realm of becoming a therapy dog team.