Could My Dog Be Trained as a Therapy Dog?

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Here’s what it takes to become a therapy dog.

Image of an older woman petting a golden retriever therapy dog.

Therapy dogs provide comfort, affection and love to children and adults living through challenging periods in their lives. They aren’t just experts at getting the humans around them to smile — they can make long-lasting connections and positively impact the mental and emotional well-being of the people they spend time with. Find out more about what a therapy dog does, what breeds are best suited for the job and how your dog can become one.

What’s the Difference Between a Therapy Dog and a Service Dog?

Therapy dogs can often be confused with their equally heroic counterparts, service dogs.

A service dog has been specially trained to do tasks that aid a human with physical or mental disabilities or other health conditions. Service dogs typically can go to places or events where other dogs may not be allowed, including restaurants, office buildings and public gatherings. They require rigorous and complex training to live with and assist their specific handler. For example, specially trained autism assistance dogs provide companionship and comfort to people with autism who may struggle to communicate with other humans, while hearing dogs are trained to alert handlers who are deaf or hard of hearing to important sounds.

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, are pets trained to interact with a variety of people. These dogs go with their owners to volunteer at various places, offering comfort and affection to help improve the lives of other people. The dogs’ ability to make a connection with people who have difficulty connecting in other ways is invaluable. The process for becoming a therapy dog can be much easier than training to become a service dog, too.

How Do Dogs Become Therapy Dogs?

Potential therapy dogs must undergo assessments to ensure they have a calm demeanor and aren’t easily startled or frightened by strange places or noisy children. Some dogs may undergo formal training at special training schools, while others may be trained at home.

What Dog Breeds Make Ideal Therapy Dogs?

Labrador retrievers — famous for their gentle natures — make excellent therapy dogs. Other dog breeds that tend to excel at therapy include:

  • Golden retrievers
  • Collies
  • German shepherds
  • Beagles
  • Greyhounds
  • Pomeranians

However, any dog can become a therapy dog if they complete the appropriate assessments and registration processes. Keep in mind that dogs aren’t the only animals that can be certified to provide comfort to humans; cats can be therapy animals as well.

What’s a Typical Day of Work for a Therapy Dog?

Many therapy dogs visit hospitals, schools and nursing homes to help students and patients who need extra help learning, calming down or even just smiling.

Therapy Dogs in Schools

Therapy dogs often go to schools to help children with their reading skills. Children can be nervous and stressed when asked to read aloud in class, which may cause them to associate reading with negative feelings. Therapy dogs and their owners can help.

Therapy dogs mingle with the children in class, offering reassurance to help children relax. Children struggling with their reading skills will often take turns reading a story to the therapy dog. Because they’re more relaxed and focused on the therapy dog, the kids don’t feel as much pressure, which can help build both their confidence and their reading skills.

But it’s not all about studying — there’s plenty of time for the dogs to play and interact with the children during breaks, too.

Therapy Dogs in Nursing Homes and Hospitals

Usually when people enter nursing homes, they’re no longer able to have pets. Sometimes, however, therapy dogs are allowed to visit, which can help cheer up the patients in the home. Many nursing-home residents find comfort in the presence of a therapy dog, especially if they’re sad, sick or withdrawn.

The same is true of hospital patients. Spending time with a therapy dog can make a significant difference in a patient’s day, which in turn could have a positive impact on how they feel during their hospital stay.

And it’s not only the residents who look forward to therapy dog visits; the staff loves to see them, too!

Ready to Get Certified?

If you think your dog would make an ideal therapy dog, know that few activities are more rewarding for both you and your dog. Seeing the difference you and your pet can make in the lives of others — whether by improving their reading skills, cheering them up, providing comfort or simply serving as a welcome distraction — is truly fulfilling.

If you are considering applying to have your dog certified as a therapy animal, there are a number of organizations that can help you do so, including:

Similarly, if you or your institution would like to begin to receive visits from therapy animals, these organizations will be happy to help.