What is a Therapy Dog?

Goldendoodle receiving therapy dog certification with elder woman

Therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort and affection to people in hospitals, retirement homes, hospices, nursing homes, schools, and disaster areas, and also to people with autism.

Therapy dogs work in animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy, typically alongside their owner/handlers who consider them the canines to be their personal pets.Therapy dogs come in all shapes, sizes, and breeds, and they differ from service dogs in many regards.

Service Dog vs Therapy Dog vs Emotional Support Dog

When you hear “assistance animal”, you think of a pet who can help with physical or mental disabilities. However, only emotional support animals and service animals get to claim this title.

Therapy animals are not classified as assistance animals on the account that they don’t belong to one owner rather and organization. Multiple people get to experience their love and care, not just one.

If you are looking for a dog to tend to your own emotional/mental needs, take the free, 5-minute pre-screening now and see if you qualify for an ESA. If so, you’ll get connected to a licensed mental health professional in your state today.

How to Get a Therapy Dog: Therapy Dog Requirements

These dogs are required to be fully certified and temperament tested, unlike emotional support animal training, which is heavily encouraged.

Therapy dogs must:

  • Be well-tempered

  • Be comfortable in a busy or stressful environment

  • Not shed excessively

  • Love to cheer others up

  • Be well-socialized

A good therapy dog must be friendly, confident, gentle in all situations and must be comfortable and contented with being petted and handled, sometimes clumsily.

Additionally, the dog must possess the ability to be lifted or assisted onto an individual’s lap or bed, and must also be able to sit or lie comfortably there.

Types of Therapy Dogs

Just like service dogs, there are several different types of therapy dogs that help patients with their specific needs.

Therapeutic Visitation Dogs

Therapeutic visitation dogs are household pets whose owners take to visit places like hospitals, nursing homes, schools, detention facilities, and rehabilitation facilities.

Many of the people in such places must be away from home due to physical or mental illness, detention, or court order. For many of these people, a visit from a therapy dog can go a long way to help lift spirits, ease stress, anxiety, depression, and motivate people by providing affection.

Disaster Relief Dogs

Much like therapeutic visitation dogs, Disaster Relief Dogs and their handlers help bring comfort and consolation to people who have suffered a traumatic or violent experience.

Disaster relief dogs have also helped provide solace to victims of terrorist attacks, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 9/11 attacks, and the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, CT.

Facility Therapy Dogs

Facility therapy dogs are canines that primarily live and work in nursing homes.

These special types of therapy dogs are often trained to help keep patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other mental illnesses out of trouble. Facility therapy dogs are handled by a trained member of the staff and typically live at the facility.

Therapy animal visiting nursing home

Animal Assisted Therapy Dogs

Animal-assisted therapy dogs help physical and occupational therapists in meeting goals important to a person’s physical or mental recovery.

Animal-assisted therapy dogs typically work in physical rehabilitation facilities and common tasks include helping a patient regain limb motion, fine motor skills and regaining pet care skills for their personal pets.

Reading Therapy Dogs

Reading therapy dogs are pet dogs that accompany their owners/handlers into schools and public libraries where they assist children who struggle with reading.

Many children who experience reading difficulties develop self-esteem issues or become self-conscious when reading in front of classmates or parents. The main purpose of a reading therapy dog is to lay beside a child and create a dog-friendly atmosphere that allows students to practice their reading skills in a non-judgmental environment.

Reading therapy dogs not only help children feel more comfortable and confident when reading, but they also help students become excited about practicing his or her reading skills.

Therapy Dog Breeds

Although any size dog can make a great therapy animal, small dogs are particularly well-suited for the job because they can be easily lifted onto a person’s hospital bed, or held in the patient’s arms.

When choosing a canine to serve as a therapy dog, the most important thing to bear in mind is the animal’s temperament and how easily the dog can be trained. A good therapy dog must have a calm and gentle demeanor and must enjoy the human touch.

Small Breeds

  • Chihuahua

  • Corgi

  • French Bulldog

  • Pug

  • King Charles Spaniel

  • Dachshund

  • Bichon Frise

  • Beagle

  • Yorkie

  • Pomeranian

Large Breeds

  • Golden Retriever

  • Labrador Retriever

  • German Shepherd

  • Greyhound

  • Rottweiler

  • Saint Bernard

  • Poodle

  • Great Dane

  • Mastiff

  • Bernese Mountain Dog

Therapy Dog Training

Practically any dog may be eligible for therapy dog certification, provided that it can pass the required training and temperament testing, such as the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test.

Therapy dogs taking a break from therapy dog training

For therapy dog training, passing the CGC Test is a requirement for many therapy dog groups, and the official AKC test includes:

Sitting politely for petting

The dog will allow a friendly stranger to pet it while it is out with its handler.

Appearance and grooming

The dog will permit someone to check its ears and front feet, as a groomer or veterinarian would do.

Walking on a loose lead

Following the evaluator’s instructions, the dog will walk on a loose lead (with the handler/owner).

Walking through a crowd

This test demonstrates that the dog can move about politely in pedestrian traffic and is under control in public places. The dog and handler walk around and pass close to several people (at least three).

Sit and lay down on command

The dog must do sit and down on command, then the owner chooses the position for leaving the dog in the stay.

Coming when called

This test demonstrates that the dog will come when called by the handler (from 10 feet on a leash).

Reaction to another dog

This test evaluates if the dog can behave politely around other dogs. Two handlers and their dogs approach each other from a distance of about 20 feet, stop, shake hands and exchange pleasantries.

Reaction to distraction

The evaluator will select and present two distractions such as dropping a chair, etc.

Supervised separation

This test demonstrates that a dog can be left with a trusted person, if necessary, and will maintain training and good manners.

The dog does not have to stay in position but should not continually bark, whine, or pace unnecessarily, or show anything stronger than mild agitation or nervousness. Therapy dog training is serious business!

Therapy Dog Certification: How to Certify a Therapy Dog

Shih tzu in therapy dog vest assisting patient

There are many different organizations that offer therapy dog certification and/or registration, and each organization has its own standards and protocols.

However, all organizations that deal with therapy dog certification typically share common ground in their training and temperament requirements for any therapy dog candidates.

Additionally, some medical institutions require therapy dogs to be registered or certified by an official organization, prior to allowing the dog-handler-team to operate on their premises.

Therapy Dog Organizations

Like said, there are many organizations for a furry friend to become a therapy dog.

Alliance of Therapy Dogs

Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD) is a company that acknowledges animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities and has made it their mission to register and test therapy animals, as well as support volunteers that work with the company.

Therapy Dogs International

Therapy Dogs International is a non-profit, volunteer-run organization that is dedicated to registering, testing and regulating therapy dogs and their handlers.

Do They Need a Therapy Dog Vest?

Just like service animals or emotional support animals, it is not required that they wear a vest; however, it’s heavily encouraged. A therapy dog vest may be worn by a dog that has been trained to visit people in group settings or facilities.

Therapy Dog Benefits: Mental Health

  1. Decrease in stress and anxiety, including that from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  2. Decrease in depression, loneliness and feelings of isolation

  3. Decrease in aggressive behaviors

Therapy Dog Benefits: Physical Health

  1. Decrease in blood pressure

  2. Decrease in heart rate

  3. Decrease in the stress hormone cortisol

Therapy Dogs Laws

A therapy dog is a pet trained to interact with many people other than its handler to make those people feel better. Therapy dogs are also trained to behave safely around all sorts of people and are often certified.

A therapy dog handler is not given public access rights by any service dog laws to take the dog out everywhere like service dog users, because the handler does not have a disability the dog is individually trained to mitigate. Therapy dogs are only allowed into places like hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and libraries by prior agreement (again, not by service dog laws).

Do You Need a Therapy Animal or an ESA?

To sum it all up, therapy dogs are there to help those in a group setting. ESAs are there to help your emotional/mental well being and focus on you while in your home or on an airplane.

If you’re looking for a furry support system to help you through the day of living or while flying, an emotional support animal could be the right fit.