Therapy Dog Training: Could Your Dog be a Candidate?

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

Therapy support dogs provide comfort, affection and love to children and adults living through challenging periods in their lives. Therapy dogs can make long-lasting connections and positively impact the mental and emotional well-being of the people they spend time with. Learn more about the differences between therapy, service and emotional support dogs, how your dog can become one, what breeds are best suited for the job, and what a typical work day is like for a therapy dog.

What is a Therapy Dog?

Therapy dogs are pets trained to interact with all kinds of people. These dogs accompany a human (often their owner) 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. 

Service Dog vs Therapy Dog – What’s the Difference?

A service dog has been specially trained to do tasks that aid people with physical or mental disabilities or other health conditions. Psychiatric service dogs are specifically trained to aid people with mental health conditions, such as anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. 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.

What are Emotional Support Dogs?

Emotional support dogs can provide immense comfort to people with psychological disorders. Often called companion animals, emotional support dogs can be prescribed by a mental health professional, however, they aren’t trained to perform specific tasks to aid those with a physical or mental disability or other health condition. Even without formal training, emotional support dogs can offer much-needed support. Like therapy dogs, emotional support dogs have limited access to public spaces.

How to Make Your Dog a Therapy Dog

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.

If your dog hasn’t undergone any formal training, a good first step to becoming a therapy dog may be participating in a program such as American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) program. There are 10 items on the CGC test, including things like “accepting a friendly stranger,” “walking through a crowd” and “reaction to distraction.” Once you and your dog have mastered these 10 skills you can take the CGC test with an AKC approved CGC evaluator and submit an application to earn the CGC title. Then you can work through an organization to earn therapy dog certification. AKC also offers a Therapy Dog program, recognizing therapy work performed by dogs through its list of accepted organizations based on the number of visits.

How Do I get a Therapy Dog Certification? 

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. 

What are Ideal Therapy Dog Breeds?

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. Also, 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.

What do Therapy Dogs in Schools Do?

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.

What do Therapy Dogs in Nursing Homes Do?

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

What do Therapy Dogs in Hospitals Do?

Similarly, hospital patients likely miss day-to-day interactions with pets. 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.

So, do 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.

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