What are Therapy Dogs?

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

While many associate small, teacup dogs as being therapy dogs, the truth is they come in all shapes, sizes and breeds and they differ from service dogs in many regards.

Therapy Dog Requirements

Therapy Dogs must:

  • Be well-tempered
  • Well-socialized
  • Enjoy human touch
  • Comfortable in busy or stressful settings
  • Not shed excessively
  • Love to cheer others up!

NOTE: Due to liability concerns, most organizations require therapy dogs to be fully certified and temperament tested.

A therapy dog’s primary duty is to make affectionate contact with unfamiliar people in sometimes-stressful environments, and thus, aside from the animal’s training, the most important characteristic of a therapy dog is its temperament.

Therapy dogs must have a calm and stable temperament and must be able to tolerate children, other animals, crowded public places and other situations which may be stressful, without becoming distressed or dangerous.

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.

therapy dogs

Types of Therapy Dogs

Therapeutic Visitation Dogs

“Therapeutic Visitation Dogs” are household pets whose owners take time 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 and depression, and motivate people through 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.

Animal Assisted Therapy Dogs

“Animal Assisted Therapy” dogs augment 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 owner/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, and 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 to 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 things to bear in mind are 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 human touch.

Although any breed can make a great therapy dog, some of the best breeds for therapy work are:

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 Dogs

Therapy Dog Training

Practically any dog, regardless of breed, 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.

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 it’s 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 demonstrates that 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.

Evaluators are encouraged to say something like, “Would you like me to watch your dog?” and then take hold of the dog’s leash. The owner will go out of sight for three minutes.

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 Certification

Therapy dog certification

There are many different organizations which 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.

Jason Statson

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