Therapy dog: getting started
Updated: Aug 23
Are you interested in becoming a therapy dog team and training your dog to become a therapy dog? This article is for you!
Welcome, and thank you for considering how you and your dog could offer comfort and support to other humans within your community through volunteer opportunities in Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI). AAI is a union of skilled handler and animal working together, often alongside other professionals, for the purpose of facilitating learning, enhanced therapeutic intervention (physical, cognitive, emotional), and/or increasing positive interaction and educational goals for humans.
Having an understanding of what kind of therapy dog work you are interested in will help you communicate with organizers and potential clients as well as give you a head-start on aligning yourself (and your dog) for a successful and rewarding experience. Following are specific categories of AAI for your consideration:
Animal Assisted Activity a therapy dog team activity that provides motivational, educational, or recreational experience with the intended consequence of enhancing quality of life (examples; reading with kids at the library, employee motivation and a place of business, visiting university students studying for finals) Animal Assisted Therapy a documented therapeutic intervention directed by health and human services providers that is goal-oriented; therapy dog team working alongside a clinician, social worker, or other practitioner (example; working alongside an occupational therapist) Animal Assisted Education a planned and structured intervention directed by a general education or special education professional where the focus of activities is on academic goals, cognitive function with student progress being both measured and documented. (Fine 2015)
Therapy Team vs. Therapy Dog. While helping enrich the lives of others, you and your dog will work together as a team. I have been volunteering as a therapy team for several years with my Flat-coated retriever, Shelby. She looks forward to the beginning of each engagement, as evidenced by the happy dance she does when I pull out her vest and bag—and that’s an important observation—that she is eager to begin the activity and enjoys the duration of it; if she didn't enjoy it, then I simply wouldn't put her through it. And of course, you should enjoy it, too! If you're considering getting yourself and your dog involved in therapy work, then I invite you to no longer think of your dog as a “therapy dog;” rather, you will become a “therapy team.” You can’t do the job well without the other; it's both you and your dog, and it is a cooperative relationship.
Would MY DOG make a good therapy dog?
Great question; I'm glad you're asking! While we can make the decision for ourselves whether we want to get involved in therapy work, we must remain mindful that is we who are making the decision for the dog. How will your dog feel about this?
A quality therapy dog is one in many;
not every dog can be or will want to be (enjoy being) a therapy dog.
Your dog is wonderful and talented in his or her own right; whether or not she's appropriate for AAI does not make her any more or less special than the next dog who is not particularly suited for it. For instance, my handsome dog-boy, Odin, is a retrieving machine, intense, and quite the trick performing dog; while my lovely dog-girl, Shelby, is gentle, laid-back, and actively seeks affection and touch. Both dogs are the same breed and raised in the same household, yet they have very different personalities and talents.
Generally, the primary attributes of a therapy dog include a naturally gentle, calm-mannered temperament, well-socialized and reliably trained, and enjoys and freely engages close-contact visiting with both new and known people. Later in this article I have assembled a more comprehensive, detailed list of attributes and skills expected from a qualified therapy dog candidate, and from the handler (under headings,"a Therapy Dog candidate should/be" and "the therapy dog Handler").
Your Dog's Best Advocate
You and your dog should have a quality human-animal bond to be your absolute best in the therapy environment. You must have a mutual relationship of trust and respect. Communication with one another is at an intimate level where your dog looks to you for guidance and you are reliably your dog’s best advocate. It is apparent to others that you have sufficient control without having to get physical with your dog, never using force or corrections. You are sensitive to how your dog is feeling and adjust accordingly to keep your dog in his/her best physical and mental frame of mind. You consistently demonstrate to your dog, whether on assignment or not, that you have his or her back so that your dog feels comfortable and confident in your care, at all times.
What’s your dog’s baseline? Familiarize yourself with your dog’s baseline behaviors (how she behaves in normal, no-stress situations) so that you notice variations from the norm. Get to know your dog, better.
Do you speak dog? If you really want to be your dog’s best advocate, then you must become familiar with his/her language. What are the elements of your dog’s body language when she is relaxed, anxious, excited, nervous, or confused? Specifically, what position are the ears in, what does her face look like, her eyes, her mouth shape, what is the tail doing, what is her body posture, what is her breathing like, what are her feet doing? Document what you observe rather than trying to interpret what you think s/he is feeling. I suspect you'll be surprised at all the details of language actually being communicated at any given moment—once you start reading and noticing your dog's language, you'll be amazed at how much she's been communicating all along.
Dog-reading skills are handy to have though in AAI you’ll need to be especially attuned to how your dog is feeling so that s/he remains balanced, healthy and in his/her optimum frame of mind for enjoyment and safety for all involved.
Common stress or fear indicators in dogs may include one or more of the following:
moving away, seeking escape or refuge
scratching at themselves
sniffing the ground
turning head away when meeting someone
shaking off of coat (a stress release)
tongue flicking (nose and lip licking)
whale eye (white of eyes visible)
urination, rolling on back
body stiffening (freezing)
salivation, sweating paw-pads
lowering of body, tail, ears
shifting paws and paw lifting
inability to relax
decreased appetite, lost interest in food
Some of the above warning behaviors can also be relatively “normal” behaviors in other situations; therefore, appropriate context must be applied. You know your dog better than anyone else! A dog not feeling well or in pain is more likely to revert to innate, possibly aggressive behaviors and/or be pushed over threshold more easily than a healthy dog who is feeling good. Signs of not feeling well may include sudden touch-sensitivity, change in mood and/or movement, unfamiliar behavior, change in drinking and eating habits, loose bowels or constipation, urination and vomiting. Be especially astute of behavior impacts due to pain, recent medications and treatments.
Does your dog like to be petted?
Perhaps your dog enjoys being petted only by familiar people, or being petted in a certain way? Can you observe a dog being petted and interpret how that dog may be feeling about it? How about your own dog? Watch this short, educational video demonstrating typical behaviors of a dog who does not enjoy petting, versus behavior typical of a dog who does enjoy petting -- the "consent" test. (Anderson 2012)
Setting up for and maintaining success. Keep rules for your animal clear and consistent, and do not allow your therapy dog to practice unwanted behaviors at home as they will be likely to do them in while in AAIs. Dog parks are generally not recommended as they promote a higher likelihood of disease exposure and transmission; inappropriate interactions; injury to dogs and people; and a tendency for your dog to become accustomed to ignoring verbal commands. (J. Pearson, 2016)
What kind of training will my dog need?
Basic manners and obedience skills most called upon
(skills are reliable and accomplished without use of physical force from handler):
walking on lead (leash is not pulled tight, dog follows along with handler through starts, stops and direction changes)
sit and down
sit and down stay
come when called
taking food from hand with permission and politely
can perform skills amidst distractions like human activity, another animal, or food odor
with support, can recover from most stimulation and startle
Tactile desensitization, gradually, positively building touch tolerance into comfort. Training must begin with handler building and establishing trust with animal. Training is not rushed or forced otherwise handler risks creating increased sensitivity. Pre-consultation with a professional is advised before beginning a tactile desensitization program, especially if working with a recently acquired (re-homed, rescued or sheltered) animal. Ultimately, the therapy dog should be tolerant (to comfortable) with the following possible experiences though it is expected that the handler will support and protect the animal through the exposure:
being touched, petted and examined, most to all parts of the body
being in close proximity to a newly introduced person, on the same level
accidental coat pulls (hair grasps)
sudden reaches and touches, a reach from over the head
restraint (being held or leaned upon)
Environmental considerations. Be mindful of your dog's comfort before committing to a therapy opportunity--will the environment be too hot, too cold, too noisy, or require your dog to do something she hasn't been introduced to?
textures - walking onto carpet, exercise mats, tile, linoleum, rubber floor, concrete, grass, etc.
automatic and sliding door entry/exits
escalators (Caution! If you believe your dog will be required to use an escalator then she'll need careful introductions to it; please don't try this on your own, consult with an experienced professional.)
sights (lighting, hats, beards, umbrellas, medical equipment, uniforms, etc.)
sounds (vehicles motoring, lawn equipment, janitorial equipment, bells, alarms, other animal, etc.)
odors (other animals, food, aroma therapies)
Has adequate break time been scheduled? Do you know where to take your dog for potty breaks? Where can you go in the event your dog becomes over-aroused and needs a calm place to recover? Tricks and other useful skills training. A client may delight and engage more readily with an animal who can perform a trick for them like, "high five." Tricks strengthen the communicative bond between you and your dog as well as broaden the scope of therapy skill you and your dog can offer.
What’s the difference between a Therapy Dog and a Service Dog?
Which dog is working as a therapy dog?
When you share with people outside of the AAI community that your dog is a therapy dog, be prepared to answer the next question, “What’s the difference between a therapy dog and a service dog?” A Service dog is an assistance dog that has been specially trained to help someone who has a disability, performing a specific service for its human; the dog remains (lives) with that human providing that service. The Therapy dog visits humans with needs, but remains (lives) with his/her handler—the therapy team stays together. Therapy team responsibilities are to provide psychological or physiological therapy to others. A service dog is permitted by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to accompany their human into businesses and other public gathering places while the therapy dog is NOT; rather, only permitted when given permission to do so by appropriate authority and/or business management. A service dog may wear a vest with the wording “please do not pet,” indicating that the dog is actively working, while a therapy dog is available for and encourages petting, providing comfort while working. [The photo on the right portrays a dog engaged in therapy work.]
There are now a few Colorado-based AAI organizations, and then there are also national level organizations. Local organizations primarily provide support to their therapy teams through training, evaluation, and acting as a communication hub for therapy requests, and most are non-profit. Perhaps their biggest value to you, other than affiliating yourself with a highly respected organization, is that they provide their approved therapy teams with insurance coverage. For instance, registered therapy teams through Pet Partners are covered under a $2 million liability coverage policy, while they are conducting therapy animal visits on behalf of Pet Partners. Some organizations offer more coverage, it depends on each unique organization. Personally, I would not consider engaging in AAI without proper organization endorsement and insurance backing (in the event something were to go wrong, the liability could be entirely yours).
Most organizations require that your dog at minimum pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen evaluation, while others also require a good standing in AAI and/or that you be registered with a national therapy dog organization, and then they may have other training requirements of their own. For instance, require you to attend a specially-designed therapy dog handler class taught by an experienced handler or approved professional trainer. Dogs are typically required to be at least one year of age, and handlers at least 18 years of age.
Businesses, retirement communities, libraries, and others will contact an AAI organization when looking for therapy dog services, and if they like the service, they may even contract with that organization exclusively. Some medical facilities have their own in-house therapy dog teams; for instance, where a hospital manages its own teams, educating and evaluating candidates through contracted or hired staff.
Following are local therapy dog organizations that I am currently aware of: (the below not listed in order of preference, respectfully, and changes over time):
and there are others…
I recommend that you do preliminary research online about the organization(s) that most interest you, then reach out to their coordinator or other volunteer(s) to learn more about requirements, opportunity variety and locations, scheduling, and overall mission. Ask questions and decide for yourself if you think they are reasonably attentive, responsive to your questions, and in alignment with your expectations and goals. Please select an organization for its integrity, however; rather than how easy it is to get evaluated and get started—you want to be proud of who you represent while in the field and among your peers, and you need an organization that will help support you in your efforts. For your convenience, I have included information (website) links for the above list at the conclusion of this article.
Therapy Dog candidate should/be:
healthy, pain-free, parasite-free, and current on vaccinations (especially against communicable diseases)
at least one year of age:
some dogs may not be ready until they are adults (for their breed) and may not be ready until about age three; if your dog is a rescue, I recommend living with and working with your dog for at least three months, or more, before seriously considering therapy work
gentle and demonstrate a desire to socialize with humans
calm-natured (rather than easily over-stimulated and/or having low-impulse control)
willingly seek affection, attention, petting from others, appears to enjoy the work
the dog moves freely, is not forced to visit
reliably obedience trained:
positive reinforcement-method training is preferred though over-dependency on treats should be avoided –your dog must be reliable and calm with or without food present
earn the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certificate.CGC is a class offered by many dog schools/trainers that offers intermediate-level obedience training within a distracting environment of objects, equipment, noises, other dogs and people simulating real-life situations
have no history of aggression or seriously injuring either people or other animals
stimulate and settle in short order
can quickly recover from a stimulated state and move into a calm and controlled state
good fear-startle recovery
can be presented with something unknown/sudden, then recover with handler guidance
take food politely-gently and leave-it
leave things alone automatically or when instructed to do so, dog is not over-stimulated by food to the point that s/he is unable to focus on work; rather, is more interested in food, overly pushy, etc.
proofed; well-socialized and training is generalized so that it is reliable; dog is tolerant and experienced at being approached in many different kinds of environments and touched in many kinds of ways (handling of feet, ears, tail, etc); is proficient at responding to cues in a variety of environments and distraction levels (prepare your dog for sudden noises, and visuals, things moving quickly and erratically, that could activate prey drive).
preferably neutral or friendly with other dogs, is not reactive toward other animals
well-groomed; clean (smells and looks clean)
hair is free from vision and mouth; breath is not offensive, drooling isn’t excessive; nails are trimmed and filed (so not to scratch human skin); free from costumes that interfere with dog’s movement, vision or hearing or prevent handler or visitor from being able to fully see how dog is feeling
no loose hanging metal pieces, no wire brushes or chain leashes or collars that clients could get cut on or caught in; dog wears a standard flat or rolled fabric or leather collar
No choke chains, nylon-slip chokes, pinch collars, or spray or electric collars
many organizations currently discourage or prohibit member therapy dogs from feeding on a “raw food” diet due to raw food-borne bacteria potential
The Therapy Dog Handler:
enjoys working with and helping people
is a good listener and follows instructions
yields to professional staff
is his/her dog’s best advocate
knows dog's limitations, fears, and anxieties, and how to manage them appropriately to keep dog balanced and feeling good at all times
is dependable; keeps commitments
presents well; communicates clearly and dresses in a respectful manner; hair is free from face enough so that handler can safely see peripherally
brings water, waste cleanup tools and any other necessities to appropriately support the animal
brings proof of dog’s vaccinations, identification and credentials
can explain the difference between a service dog and a therapy dog
took a class on therapy handler and therapy dog skills
provides safe transport for the animal
sets aside appropriate amount of time needed prior to visits for proper preparation
Typical Evaluation elements in a therapy dog test:
Appearance and Grooming
Meeting a Friendly Stranger
Walk on leash (no tight leash or force; evaluator will ask for handler to make changes in direction and come to a stop)
Walking through a crowd and equipment
Reaction/recovery from noise
Sit and Down on cue (no force)
Reaction to neutral dog
Meeting a staggering (unstable) person
Crowded by several people at once
Taking food politely
Willingness to visit with people
Your evaluator will likely have one or more assistants helping them with the evaluation, providing distractions as prescribed by the test and serving as an additional observer. Any act of aggression should be grounds for immediate dismissal from the test. Demonstrations of fears and discomfort will be noted for future further development.
In addition to training, some organizations offer a preliminary or pre-test to the official test. These provide an excellent opportunity for you to get a feel for the real-test experience.
Tiffany Simpson-Terroux, trainer at Terroux Dog Training, 15 years of experience in the class environment and in private instruction, certified as evaluator for the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program in 2006, graduated with honors from Regis University, BS Business Administration and Communication, and earned the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work Animals and Human Health (AHH) Certificate. Tiffany has accumulated over 135 CEUs of ongoing professional dog training education credits through national professional dog training organizations. Tiffany and her Flat-coated retriever, Shelby, a registered therapy team through Pet Partners and Animals 4 Therapy. Tiffany has evaluated numerous therapy dog candidates for AAI organizations. She is a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). Sources: Aloff B. Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide — Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog. Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise Publishing; 2005. American Kennel Club (AKC). CGC Training & Test Items. Retrieved from https://www.akc.org/products-services/training-programs/canine-good-citizen/training-testing/ Anderson, Eilleen (2012). Does Your Dog REALLY Want to be Petted? Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cGDYI-s-cQ Fine, A. (2015). Animal Assisted Activities, Animal Assisted Therapy, Animal Assisted Education. In Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy. (4th ed). Academic Press, CA. pp.74-75, 53-54, 195-203. Pearson, J. (2016). Animal Partners, The third course in the Animals and Human Health Professional Development series. University of Denver, Graduate School of Social Work Please Don’t Pet Me [service dog] Campaign. Differences between service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals. Retrieved from http://pleasedontpetme.com/index.php Raw Pet Foods and the AVMA's Policy: FAQ https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/FAQs/Pages/Raw-Pet-Foods-and-the-AVMA-Policy-FAQ.aspx University of Denver, Institute for Human-Animal Connection. Retrieved from https://www.du.edu/humananimalconnection/programs-education/ahh U.S. Department of Justice, ADA Requirements; https://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm