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How to Certify a Therapy Dog

Therapy dogs fulfill a wide range of needs. They can provide a welcome distraction for students during stressful exam periods, provide affection and companionship to seniors and give comfort and joy to patients recovering from illnesses in hospitals. Therapy dogs can provide people of all ages with unconditional love, a furry hug, and some much-needed stress relief.

What is a Therapy Dog?

A therapy dog is a dog that has undergone training to provide comfort and support to people, often in group settings. Therapy dogs provide help to people other than their owner, while service dogs and emotional support dogs directly assist their owners with a physical or mental health condition. Therapy dogs can frequently be found working in environments such as schools, retirement homes, hospitals, workplaces, disaster sites, nursing homes, and hospices. 

There are three basic steps involved in certifying a therapy dog: 

  1. Adopt a dog that has the appropriate demeanor and intelligence to serve as a therapy dog. 
  2. Train the dog to provide comfort and support to others, including in group settings at a variety of locations. 
  3. Optionally register your trained therapy dog with an organizationsuch as Service Dog Certifications
Three basic steps in certifying a therapy dog - Infographic - ServiceDogCertifications

In this article, we’ll explore how a regular dog can become a therapy dog. We will also explain the key differences between a therapy dog and a service dog or emotional support dog, especially when it comes to the rights of their handlers. 

Types of Therapy Animals

Therapy animals are commonly dogs, but they can be any type of domesticated animal that has been trained to provide comfort and support to individuals and groups that are experiencing distress. These animals can provide this service just through their presence – animals are known to have a calming effect on people – but can also be trained to perform tasks. For example, a therapy dog can be trained to lie down for pets, perform tricks to provide a welcome distraction for patients, or provide comforting paw pressure to someone struggling with anxiety. 

Any breed of dog can qualify as a therapy dog, as long as they have the proper temperament and intelligence. A good therapy dog should have the ability to be around groups of people and remain calm and dedicated to their tasks. A therapy dog must be able to remain focused even if the individuals around it are in distress. Proper socialization for a therapy dog is key. A therapy dog will come into contact with many strangers, so it’s critical to ensure that the dog has the proper demeanor and behavioral aptitude for the job. 

Therapy dogs often work in various environments, some of which can be chaotic such as a school, hospital, or disaster area. A therapy animal handler has to be able to ensure that their dog will remain alert, calm, and responsive to their commands in any situation. A therapy dog also has to handle surprises as small children and people suffering from mental health issues may act erratically. For example, a therapy dog should remain calm even as a classroom full of excited squealing children approach it or in a hospital with distracting noises and doctors and nurses bustling back and forth. Due to these potentially stressful environments, it is also important that a therapy dog handler takes care to ensure that the therapy dog is not being overworked or stressed and is given the opportunity for plenty of breaks and periods of rest. A therapy dog should enjoy their work in assisting others. 

Even though dogs are traditionally the most commonly used animal in the therapy world, other species can also perform this important work. These include:

  • Cats – Although they may not be as “transportable” as canines, some nursing homes have made cats a permanent part of their elderly care regimen. A resident feline at a nursing home can weave in and out of the patient’s rooms and, if the mood strikes, may even choose to stay for a snooze or a snuggle. A daily visit from a cat can brighten even the darkest of moods.
  • Equine – Horses are being used to help individuals that are dealing with things like drug abuse, learning disabilities or rehabilitation. Teaching a person how to trust and interact with a creature such as a horse can have invaluable benefits.
  • Small Animals – Guinea pigs and rabbits are also being used for therapy work. These small furry animals are easy to manage and can be of great comfort, especially for individuals that may be fearful of dogs and/or cats.
Therapy Animal - Cat - ServiceDogCertifications

Do I need an Emotional Support Dog or a Therapy Dog?

A therapy dog provides comfort for others, but if you are in need of your own comfort animal with you at all times, an emotional support animal (ESA) is probably more appropriate. Emotional support animals are a recognized type of assistance animal under federal housing laws in addition to various state laws. ESAs are protected under the federal Fair Housing Act; they are permitted to accompany their owners in residences (even if the building bans pets) free of charge. 

Emotional support animals are commonly dogs and cats, but they can be any type of small, domesticated animal. ESAs do not require any special training – they provide comfort and support for mental health conditions just through their companionship.

In order to qualify for an emotional support animal, you need a letter of recommendation from a licensed healthcare professional. The licensed professional will determine whether you have a condition that qualifies for an emotional support animal and whether an emotional support animal would help with that condition. Emotional support animals are used for various mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and phobias. If you have an ESA letter, you can submit it to your landlord for the accommodation of your emotional support animal. Here is a link to a post on how to get an emotional support animal letter.

What is the difference between a Service Dog and a Therapy Dog?

A service dog assists just its owner with their disability, while a therapy dog is expected to interact with other people and provide them with therapeutic support. Service dog owners generally do not want members of the public interfering with their dogs while they are on duty. 

Service dogs have special rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and are allowed to go to public areas such as grocery stores, restaurants, libraries, entertainment venues, and hotels. A service dog is trained to perform specific tasks to assist its owner with a disability. For example, a service dog can be its owner’s eyes or ears, pick up dropped items, retrieve medications, “call” emergency services and even alert the owner to a drop in blood sugar or of an oncoming seizure.

Service dogs help many disabled individuals live a normal independent life that may not otherwise be possible. Therapy dogs are not considered service dogs under the ADA. Service dogs have the right to accompany their owners in public venues, housing and flights, but therapy dogs do not have that same right. A therapy dog is intended to work for others and must be invited to places such as schools and hospitals to work with the individuals there. You can learn more about service dog laws here

How Do I Register My Therapy Dog?

If you’re interested in owning a therapy dog and providing services for individuals and organizations, the most critical step is properly training your dog. As previously discussed, a therapy dog has to be thoroughly trained to calmly and confidently deal with strangers in a range of potentially busy environments. 

There is no universal standard for the qualification of a therapy dog. There are various organizations that provide training courses and certification programs. Many therapy dog owners choose to train their dogs by themselves. If you’re interested in working as a therapy dog handler, it’s important to understand what type of experience and qualifications the organizations and individuals you hope to work with are seeking. 

Registering your therapy dog or obtaining an identification card is completely optional and not mandatory. Many therapy dog handlers, however, obtain ID cards and register their animal in a database to help things go more smoothly on the job. Having an ID card or vest, for example, helps therapy dog handlers signal that they are at a location to work, and the therapy dog is on the premises as an invited guest to provide therapeutic support. 

In a similar way that service dog owners frequently use accessories such as ID badges, certificates, and vests to help signal to members of the public that their animals are on duty, therapy dog owners also use these items to help identify themselves and their dogs as part of a pet therapy team. 

Register Your Therapy Animal Today - Banner - ServiceDogCertifications

Do I need a special letter for my Therapy Dog?

Unlike an emotional support animal, you do not need a letter of recommendation for a therapy dog. It is up to the organization or individual you are working for to determine whether they want to hire you and your therapy dog. A therapy dog works on location as an invited guest of the facility; it may not be necessary to present a letter or certification when showing up for work. 

Therapy, ESA and Service Work is For the Dogs

Whether your dog is a therapy dog, an emotional support animal, or a service canine, the work these animals do is vital in the lives of many people. Each type of dog has very different legal rights and qualification procedures, so it’s critical to understand the differences between them. No matter what type of assistance animal they are, these dogs help people live their lives with unconditional love, freedom, and independence.


  1. Dennis Dodge says: June 2, 2022

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