I’ve received several requests recently asking to train or certify a dog to be a therapy dog. Let’s look at what a therapy dog is (and isn’t) and whether your dog might be a fit for therapy work.
A therapy dog does Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) which is an umbrella term for Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA), Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Animal-Assisted Education (AAE). AAA dogs make visits to institutions like hospitals and senior care facilities and participate in crisis response. They also serve as stress reduction helpers in the workplace and at universities. For example, CWU runs the Paws and Relax program where dogs provide stress relief for frazzled students during finals week.
AAT dogs work in physical or occupational therapy settings. For example, a dog might assist a patient working to regain motor control by retrieving a ball the patient throws. AAE dogs participate in reading or other education programs. The Ellensburg public library has an animal-assisted reading program for children.
Therapy dogs differ from Emotional Support dogs who provide comfort and companionship to their owners. Therapy dogs are family pets and not recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and don’t get the public access privileges that Service Dogs have.
Therapy dogs can be any breed or size but must have a calm temperament. They’re not upset by new places, strange equipment and sudden noises. They’ll willingly engage with people when given the opportunity and are friendly to all people regardless of age, race, gender or physical ability. They enjoy people touching, patting and hugging them.
Because they’ll be working in public situations, they must reliably perform basic obedience skills (sit, down, stay, leave it) even when there are distractions, and walk politely on leash past other people and dogs.
You’ll need to be attuned to your dog’s body language and stress signals to gauge your dog’s comfort level in public settings. While studies show decreased stress levels for humans during animal-assisted visits, some studies indicate increased cortisol levels (stress hormones) in some therapy dogs, possibly related to the number of visits the dog makes or whether the dog has a choice to move away from a person when needed.
While there isn’t a national certification program for therapy dogs, there are some respected organizations that help handler/dog teams develop skills needed for therapy work, as well as providing liability insurance during visits. Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society) is probably the oldest and best known. Every organization has their own certification and may have differing requirements.
If you like putting titles after your dog’s name, The American Kennel Club (AKC) issues therapy dog titles based on the number of visits your dog has completed. They require the dog to be certified by one of their AKC approved therapy dog organizations, such as Alliance of Therapy Dogs or Pet Partners.
Organizations that allow animal-assisted visits or therapy may have varying requirements. CWU for example requires dogs to pass the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test prior to participating in the Paws and Relax program. Other local organizations may not require anything other than a clean, well-behaved dog. Check first with the business you’re interested in visiting to find out what they require.