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How To Get A Therapy Dog – The Ultimate Guide

How To Get A Therapy Dog – The Ultimate Guide

No other animal species has a relationship with humans like dogs do. The human-canine bond goes back for more than a thousand years. Dogs have evolved with humans by hunting with them, fighting alongside them in wars, and protecting their families from harm. In turn, humans have given dogs food, shelter, and safety. 

That bond between humans and dogs remains to this day. We may not have to use dogs to help us hunt for food or find our way home through blizzards, but the relationship remains strong. According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 68 percent of U.S. households own a pet, and 90 million of those pets are dogs. Over 75% of dog owners see their dogs as a part of their family, almost like children. 

This ultimate guide will discuss the purpose of a therapy dog and how to get one within the following chapters:

Dogs Help Humans to Heal

Dogs uniquely affect humans, and their comfort can heal the human body and warm the soul. Research into the human-animal bond indicates that dogs can alleviate the symptoms of mental health concerns, like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The therapeutic value of a dog’s presence is the cornerstone of pet therapy. The umbrella term “pet therapy” or “animal therapy” includes both the animal-assisted therapy itself and the activities involved with animal-assisted therapy. Service dogs and emotional support dogs are two examples of animal therapy, where a dog can directly help someone with a disability manage their disorder. 

What Do Therapy Dogs Do? 

Therapy dogs perform animal-assisted therapy, but instead of helping one person, they work with their owners and travel to hospitals, nursing homes, and schools to improve the mood and well-being of the many people there. As a team with their owner, they provide attention and comfort on a volunteer basis. All therapy dogs already have a calm demeanor. They also patiently accept and give out cuddles to people who need them.

Therapy dogs offer a much-needed distraction through their presence and provide a bit of happiness to the places they visit. 

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An estimated 50,000 therapy dogs exist in the U.S., providing comfort and cheer to people in challenging situations. However, not every dog can become a therapy dog. A legitimate therapy dog requires training and certification to be legally and medically recognized. A certified therapy dog can accompany its owners to areas like patient hospital rooms and nursing homes — places where most animals are not allowed. Because therapy dogs work closely with patients, they must behave safely and have the right temperament. Therefore, owners need to follow the correct procedures when seeking to certify a dog as a therapy dog. 

Three Types of Assistance Animals - Comparison Infographic - ServiceDogCertifications

What Is the Process to Certify a Therapy Dog?

If you would like to own a therapy dog, the process takes a bit of time and effort, but it’s worth the effort. In the end, your therapy dog will provide healing and comfort to many people. There are three easy steps to owning a therapy dog:

  1. Adopt a dog.
  2. Train your dog.
  3. Register your trained dog.

With each step comes a few details that can make your therapy dog a more effective and safe assistant animal.

Step 1: Adopting a Dog

Conducting your research and looking around for the right dog can start your journey towards owning a therapy dog off to a good start. Research can allow you to find the breed that’s suited for your patient population (school versus nursing home, etc.) and your own individual needs (small space versus a large space, etc.). Consider that a therapy dog will also live with you, so the dog you choose should fit into your lifestyle. Take into account your own home and work situation and whether you can maintain the time and costs of a therapy dog. 

Breed 

Not every dog is suited for the work of a therapy dog. No matter how cute and fluffy a dog is, for example, if it’s exceptionally exuberant and doesn’t sit still on someone’s lap, it may not be a good choice as a therapy dog. Although some breeds are known to be excellent assistance animals, you don’t need to focus on the breed as much as the dog’s temperament. 

According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), a therapy dog’s breed is less significant than most people believe. For example, Labradors and Golden retrievers typically make ideal service dogs. However, a small terrier chihuahua mix that is calm, welcoming, and affectionate can also be a solid choice for a therapy dog. Even breeds that most people don’t usually recognize as assistance animals — like Rottweilers and Pomeranians — can make good therapy dogs with the right temperament. 

When looking for a potential therapy dog the dog’s temperament is more important than the breed.

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Temperament

What matters more than breed is temperament. Because therapy dogs remain still for long periods to allow people to pet and cuddle them, a restless and bouncy dog won’t work out well. A therapy dog must be naturally social, trusting, and obedient. Therapy dogs often work with young children or frail or sick people, making safety vital when working with service dogs. Therefore, a therapy dog needs to be unaggressive or anxious. Traits ill-suited for a service dog are excessive barking, jumping on people, being overly shy or fearful. 

These are traits to look for when looking for a therapy dog:

  • obedient 
  • quiet
  • relaxed
  • likes to be petted
  • friendly with people and other animals
  • gentle

Age

Old dogs can certainly learn new tricks, but puppies have more energy and are easier to train. A therapy dog interacts with many people in one day, which means a dog needs the energy and motivation to do so. For the most part, younger dogs are more open to training and tolerate new environments more readily than senior dogs. However, a dog that’s too young can also lead to problems. Most organizations require therapy dogs to be at least a year old to work.

Your Lifestyle 

Although therapy dogs work with people during the day, they remain with their owners during their downtime. This means that the dog you choose should be suitable for your lifestyle as well. For example, if you or someone in your household is allergic to pet dander, a hypoallergenic dog might be something to look for. Owners who live in apartment buildings might need a smaller dog, while owners who like to hike or do outdoor activities may want to have a larger, energetic dog.

Where to Find a Dog

You might be lucky to already have a dog that’s the right age and temperament to become a therapy dog. Most people, however, need to search for a good candidate. There’s always a chance that a dog won’t take well to training or manage the work, so it’s essential to take the time to find the best possible candidate.

You may visit a local shelter to adopt a dog with the right temperament, or you may research online to find any dog trainers that sell dogs with the proper training to match the duties of a therapy dog.

Can Any Dog Become a Therapy Dog? 

Not every dog can be a therapy dog. It takes a special dog with the right traits to become one. When searching for a therapy dog, trainers and other professionals can direct you on where to start your search. Some legitimate breeders raise dogs for specific therapy and service dog temperaments. You can also visit rescue shelters to find a dog that fits the bill; know that shelters tend to have older dogs. 

Any dog with the right temperament and a love for people has the potential of becoming a therapy dog. - ServiceDogCertifications
Any dog with the right temperament and a love for people has the potential of becoming a therapy dog.

Step 2: Training Your Dog 

Therapy dogs need training, though it’s not as detailed or extensive as the training for service dogs. When you’ve found the dog you’d like to train, you should start as soon as possible. Even if you decide to train the dog yourself, you may want to seek advice from a professional. Consulting with people who understand the process can make training a therapy dog go smoother. 

How Are Therapy Dogs Trained?

You can choose to take your dog to a private, professional trainer. Often, private trainers work as part of the training team. As the owner, how you treat your dog at home also plays a role in a therapy dog’s training. When opting for private training, look for a formal organization with good feedback and long business history. 

Private training can be costly, and some owners enjoy training their own therapy dogs. If you find yourself choosing to forgo a private trainer, you have various options for training. The following are a few helpful pointers to help you train your therapy dog.

Study the Canine Good Citizen Test

Most therapy dog organizations require their members to pass a test, the Canine Good Citizen test, or both. The Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Test is a nationally recognized behavioral evaluation program for dogs and their owners developed by the AKC. It is a prerequisite to becoming a therapy dog. You can train using YouTube videos, workbooks, and online training services. The CGC lists ten expected behaviors that a dog should exhibit, showing responsible and appropriate public behavior. 

  • Accepting a friendly stranger. The dog should allow a friendly stranger to walk over and communicate with the owner. When tested, an evaluator walks naturally towards the dog’s owner and greets them, all while ignoring the dog. The dog shouldn’t be anxious, nervous, or shy. The dog must remain calm.
  • Sitting politely for petting. The dog must also allow a friendly stranger to pet it without reacting negatively or aggressively.
  • Appearance and grooming. The dog must remain pleasant and calm while letting a stranger groom it, allowing them to comb or brush their fur. During this time, an evaluator will also inspect the dog, checking to see if the dog is well-groomed and cared for appropriately.
  • Out walking on a loose leash. While walking on a loose leash, an evaluator offers the owner directions. Sometimes the directions are provided beforehand; other times, they are given while walking. The orders consist of a left and right turn, as well as an about-turn and stopping. The dog must follow their owner, though they don’t have to respond immediately or be perfectly aligned with their owner. However, their owner must always be in control of the dog. 
  • Walking through a crowd. As a therapy dog, your dog might frequent crowded hospital hallways and patient rooms. During the CGC test, the dog must walk with you near at least three people. The dog must move politely through a crowd without being anxious, easily distracted, or anxious. They can show a slight interest in their environment, but extreme exuberance is not allowed. The dog should be under the control of its owner at all times.
  • Sit and down on command, along with staying in place. As a therapy dog, your dog may need to remain in another person’s presence while you stand farther away. As part of the CGC test, an evaluator asks you to command your dog to sit or “down” while you walk 20 feet away. The dog must remain in the sit or down position until you return and call. When you call, your dog must return to you calmly. The test allows an owner to command the dog more than once, but it must be clear that the dog follows orders. 
  • Coming when called. Your dog must come when called from a distance of 10 feet. You can choose to command the dog to sit or stay and then call them once you are 10 feet away. 
  • Reaction to another dog. A therapy dog needs to react calmly to other dogs. During the CGC test, the evaluator will walk over with another dog and greet you while you’re holding your dog. Your dog should not be aggressive with the other dog and remain calm.
  • Reacting (or not responding) to a distraction. The evaluator may drop something in front of the dog or jog by. Your dog should not bark, panic, or become hostile. They can express curiosity or casual interest, but not aggression.
  • Supervised separation. The last part of the test demands that you leave your dog with the evaluator for at least three minutes. The evaluator will take your dog’s leash and remain with your dog. The dog shouldn’t whine, pace nervously, or appear anxious. 

Training a therapy dog is crucial and must be verified by passingthe Canine Good Citizen test.

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Getting Ready for the CGC Test

It’s best to start training for the CGC by socializing your dog with other canines and groups of people. Exposure to new environments can keep a dog calm during novel situations, like external stimuli (busy streets, crowded parks, etc.) Getting dogs used to hearing external stimuli and interacting with other people helps dogs stay calm in hectic environments. Also, be mindful of the techniques you use to train your dog. Although you can use treats to teach, the CGC does not allow treats during the exam. It’s best to acclimate your dog to perform the behaviors without treats. 

You can choose to take the Advanced Canine Good Citizen tests after finishing the CGC test, which evaluates real-world situations. Instead of a controlled setting, this test occurs on an actual busy sidewalk, shopping center, or park. 

The Day of a CGC Test: What to Bring and Not to Bring

Owners must bring a regular leash to the CGC test site, and collars must be the buckle or slip-on type. Electronic collars and pinch collars are not allowed. If you need to use a harness, you may want to inquire with the test site beforehand. Treats and toys are not permitted during the test; therefore, it’s best to train your dog to respond to commands without treats. 

Step 3: Registering Your Therapy Dog

Deciding which therapy dog organization to register with may depend on your location and the facilities you plan to visit. Each therapy dog organization has its own standards and regulations, most of which involve how well a dog can behave in public. Some hospitals, schools, and nursing homes have specific therapy dog organizations that they recognize, along with health and age requirements for the dog. 

To register your dog, you’ll need the dog’s veterinary record. For example, Therapy Dogs International (TDI) is one of the oldest and largest therapy dog organizations in the U.S. The following lists their health guidelines for their therapy dogs:

  • An annual health check conducted with a veterinarian within the last 12 months. 
  • Current rabies vaccination, administered by a veterinarian. 
  • Must have received all core vaccines like distemper, parvovirus, and hepatitis.
  • Negative stool sample within 12 months. 
  • Negative test for heartworm prevention mediation. Within the past year. 

Depending on your location or the availability of evaluators, other requirements therapy dog organizations may have for applicants are:

  • Graduation or test certificates with a letter from the school or evaluator verifying the dog’s temperament.
  • A letter of recommendation from a licensed veterinarian. 
  • Letters from the facility you are planning to visit, stating they invite you and your dog. The letter should be on the company letterhead. 

All therapy dogs must be registered with a therapy dog organization that applies to your location and is accepted by the facilities you plan to visit with your therapy dog.

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Therapy Dogs Laws

Unlike emotional support animals and service dogs, a therapy dog does not fall under federal laws for people with disabilities. Most owners of therapy dogs don’t struggle with a disability themselves; thus, the therapy dog does not have public access rights, federal housing rights, or air carrier rights. Therapy dogs are only allowed in places they will conduct their work — like schools, hospitals, and nursing homes — and are not allowed in areas where pets aren’t welcome (typically: stores, restaurants, etc.)

Therapy Dog Insurance

As with most things in life, accidents do happen. Therapy dogs interact with countless people throughout their work, and problems may arise. Therapy dog owners must have insurance coverage to protect them from liability. Many therapy dog organizations provide insurance coverage to their members, ensuring that all their members are protected. Owners can also choose to search for their therapy dog insurance. 

Therapy Dog Grooming

Due to their work nature and the places they visit, therapy dogs should be exceptionally well-groomed. A dog that’s matted, unkempt, and needs bathing should not perform therapy dog duties due to infection control issues. Therapy dog owners should keep up with a grooming schedule and keep their dogs brushed and clean. Dogs that shed excessively can become a problem at the sites they visit because staff must clean up fur when the dog leaves. Long nails on dogs can accidentally hurt people and damage furniture, so keeping nails trimmed and buffed is essential. 

Reinforcing Good Behavior

Owning a therapy dog is a big responsibility, and that responsibility doesn’t stop once a therapy visitation ends. Continually reinforcing good behavior is essential to maintaining a good therapy dog. It may be tempting to allow your dog some “downtime,” away from the behavioral expectations of therapy visits. This change in expectations can confuse dogs, leading them to become undisciplined even in therapy dog settings. Dogs that can’t maintain CGC behaviors may harm the patients they visit; therefore, reinforcing good behavior is key to a successful and safe therapy dog. 

Keeping Up with Veterinary Appointments

Unlike regular dog owners who may skip or run late with their routine veterinary appointments, therapy dog owners must stick to their routine appointments and visit their veterinarians when necessary. This means maintaining up-to-date vaccinations and administering any medications to your dog as prescribed. Therapy dog owners must also be vigilant about checking their dogs for any illness or disease, as therapy dogs often visit facilities where people have compromised immune systems or health problems.

Maintaining a dog’s health is a crucial part of being a therapy dog owner. 

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Therapy Dogs Offer Hope

Owning a therapy dog comes with a slew of responsibilities, but the work is gratifying. Although you may need to consistently reinforce good behaviors, continually groom your dog, and maintain routine veterinary care, the expectations aren’t that far from what owners of regular pets should be doing. Caring for a therapy dog also offers therapy dog owners a sense of responsibility and accomplishment. And you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you and your well-behaved therapy dog offers hope and brightness to people who need it. 

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