Could Brutus, your gentle German shepherd, be a therapy dog?
When you visited Dad in the hospital today, he seemed happier than yesterday. He couldn’t stop talking about the visit he’d had from the nice lady and her little dachshund, who had cuddled with him on his bed. What a difference that had made in his mood!
As you stroke Brutus’s big head, you wonder, “Are there certain breeds that make the best therapy dogs?”
There are more than 50,000 trained therapy dogs in the United States alone. And despite their intimidating size and appearance, the German shepherd breed makes the cut! So do other big dogs like Labradors and poodles, as well as small breeds, such as the dachshund and several terrier types.
So if you’re wondering if your dog is one of the best therapy dog breeds, continue reading to find out!
What is a therapy dog?
First and foremost, it’s important to understand the difference between therapy dogs, service dogs, and emotional support dogs.
- Therapy dogs are trained pets who, with their volunteer owners, visit places such as hospitals, trauma centers, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, and disaster areas to bring comfort to people who need special attention and support.
- Emotional support animals (ESAs) are pets that a licensed mental health professional has prescribed to offer support to people struggling with a mental illness. They don’t have to go through any special training and can include pets other than dogs, such as cats, horses, pigs, etc.
- Service dogs are trained for specialized tasks, such as guiding a person who is blind or supporting someone who has epilepsy or diabetes. They’re granted special access to public places, such as government buildings, restaurants, and airplanes.
What type of dog makes the best therapy dog?
Therapy dogs come in all shapes and sizes. Big dogs, small dogs, male and female dogs, purebreds, or mixed breeds — these distinctions don’t really matter.
What matters most is the dog’s personality. A therapy dog needs to be intelligent, calm, gentle, friendly, and patient. They also need to be outgoing, sociable, and confident — able to connect with people easily. Furthermore, they have to be okay with being petted by strangers. If your dog has these qualities, it likely has the right personality to become a therapy dog.
How does a dog become a therapy dog?
While different therapy dog organizations have different training requirements, in general, a dog must be trained and have its social skills tested before becoming certified as a therapy dog. The American Kennel Club (AKC) recommends that, at a minimum, dogs pass the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test before registration.
Thinking of getting a dog specifically to do therapy work? Here are 25 dog breeds that typically make excellent therapy dogs, listed alphabetically.
25 great therapy dog breeds
A beagle’s bouncy nature makes them excellent at cheering people up. Nursing homes, schools, and hospitals are good environments for a beagle therapy dog.
2. Bichon frisé
This small dog packs a lot in a small package. Bichon frisés are smart and learn quickly. This breed is also friendly, gentle with people, and aims to please.
Due to their small size, the bichon is a great therapy dog to take to places that may not be suitable for larger breeds, such as small apartments. Its size is also perfect for people who may be intimidated by bigger dogs.
3. Border collie
Border collies are athletic, dynamic, playful, and highly intelligent. As a working breed, border collies are very loyal to people. It may take a while for this dog to reign in its high energy level, but once trained, border collies can be great therapy dogs.
Good therapy environments for border collies include places where they can be kept busy and active, such as schools and rehab centers.
4. Cavalier King Charles spaniel
As its name indicates, this small spaniel was bred to be a royal companion dog. It has a kind, loving, gentle temperament and tends to have a calming influence.
The “Cav,” as they’re affectionately known, typically enjoys sitting on laps, even those of strangers. Working with people who use a wheelchair or cuddling at a patient’s bedside are great opportunities for this breed to shine as a therapy dog.
Dachshunds, also lovingly called “weiner dogs”, are hunting dogs originally bred to hunt badgers. They come in two sizes: standard (16–32 pounds) and miniature (11 pounds or under).
Dachshunds are energetic and can be independent and stubborn, but with the proper socialization training, they can be great at supporting people in times of stress and illness.
6. English springer spaniel
This midsize, long-eared sporting breed is energetic and loves exercise.
The English springer is prone to barking and may need some extra behavioral training to adjust to quieter environments. But its intelligence, attractive looks, and friendliness make it well-suited for therapy work.
7. French bulldog
The French bulldog, a small dog breed, is famous for its ability to offer unconditional affection to just about anyone who needs it.
The “Frenchie” loves being with people. It performs wonderfully in hospital settings, nursing homes, schools, orphanages, and anywhere else where it can cuddle up with people who need some TLC.
8. German shepherd
Like other working dog breeds, the German shepherd is very intelligent. While they may be a larger, powerful breed with, unfortunately, an incorrect stereotype of aggression often seen in these dogs. However, they’re exceptionally capable of extending great love to people.
German shepherds are easily trainable as therapy dogs. Once they get the hang of what’s expected of them in a therapy environment, their natural obedience and loyalty make them wonderful companions to take to a variety of therapy situations and settings.
9. Golden retriever
In addition to being great family dogs, golden retrievers are often used as emotional support dogs. In fact, they’re widely considered the “poster child” of therapy dogs.
Goldens have a gentle and sensitive nature and seem to instinctively know what people need. They radiate happiness around people and can’t help but evoke smiles when they are petted, even by strangers.
Their loving, caring temperament makes them particularly good at relieving anxiety, stress, and depression.
10. Great Dane
You might be surprised to see the Great Dane on our list, but this gentle giant definitely has the right temperament. Great Danes are very friendly and love to please. They’re masters at providing comfort, and they socialize well with people.
Great Danes aren’t suitable for taking to small rooms due to their enormous size, but wherever there’s enough space for them, people will love the affection this breed offers.
11. Great Pyrenees
The “polar bear dog” known as the Great Pyrenees seems to have innate wisdom in knowing exactly what people need. This breed is smart, gentle, sensitive, and very trainable.
This calm, loving breed is suitable for working as a therapy dog in a variety of settings. Just watching a Great Pyrenees walk into a hospital room or nursing home brings joy to people’s hearts.
The greyhound, a racing breed, might not be the first breed that comes to mind for therapy work. However, this dog’s sweet, sensitive nature makes it an excellent therapy breed.
The greyhound is smart and loyal with a calm temperament. It is particularly good at helping people struggling with anxiety or PTSD.
13. Irish setter
Irish setters, the embodiment of elegance and grace, are affectionate, warmhearted, and sensitive dogs that bond easily with their families and even strangers.
It’s important to use lots of encouragement and praise when training an Irish setter to be a therapy dog since the breed tends to be on the energetic side. Once trained, a setter is sure to bring many smiles to people in nursing homes and similar environments.
The Havanese is a little dog with a big heart. This breed’s appearance, especially its soft fur, seemingly makes it designed for cuddling with people and showering them with doggy love.
While children, in particular, typically love interacting with Havaneses, this little ball of joy is also a great therapy dog for seniors and hospital patients.
The labradoodle — a cross between a Labrador retriever and a standard poodle — combines the poodle’s intelligence with the Labrador’s loving nature for a hybrid with a natural ability to make people feel loved.
The labradoodle is smart, energetic, and sensitive, and it also loves to cuddle. Its hypoallergenic coat makes it particularly well-suited for working with people with impaired immune systems.
16. Labrador retriever
Originally bred as hunting dogs, Labrador retrievers know how to stay on task. They’re intelligent and easy to train. They’re also known for their friendliness, outgoing nature, and ability to connect effortlessly with people.
Labs have a calm, patient disposition, which makes it easy to take these big dogs into settings such as hospitals and nursing homes.
Originally bred as a working dog in the fishing industry, the Newfoundland is intelligent and very trainable. When around water, these dogs seem to know intuitively when swimmers need help, which makes them wonderful lifeguards.
The Newfie’s love for helping people transfers to suitability for therapy work. This breed has a calming effect on people and enjoys comforting them through pets and cuddles.
18. Pembroke Welsh corgi
Despite its small size, the Pembroke Welsh corgi was bred as a cattle herding dog. The corgi is stocky, strong, self-assured, intelligent, and very trainable.
Corgis are playful and can be mischievous, but with their cheerful, upbeat personality and love for affection, they can bring great joy to people as therapy dogs.
19. American pit bull terrier
The American pit bull terrier, originally a cross between bulldogs and terrier, are often stigmatized as an aggressive, dangerous breed. In reality, in addition to their lively, outgoing temperament, Pit Bulls are typically loyal and devoted.
Pit bulls are smart and capable of great affection. So, with the proper training, they can make excellent therapy dogs.
Pomeranians have a deeply affectionate nature that draws people to them. They’re calm yet outgoing, and they love to make new human friends.
This cuddly breed is particularly well-suited for helping people experiencing anxiety and stress, whether in a hospital setting or elsewhere. Due to their small size and cute, teddy bear-like appearance, Pomeranians are especially suitable for working with young children.
Like the Cavalier King Charles spaniel, the pug was originally bred as a companion animal. This breed is typically very friendly and loves being around people, even strangers.
Pugs enjoy being the center of human attention. They tend to instinctively know what people need and are excellent at spreading comfort and joy as therapy dogs.
22. Shih tzu
The adorable shih tzu, a toy breed, is known for being playful, outgoing, and affectionate. They are great with young children, making them ideal family dogs, and they also typically do well with other dogs.
Shih tzus have an independent streak but are still quite trainable due to their devotion to their owners. Once they know the ropes of therapy dog work, they excel at relieving stress and anxiety.
23. Staffordshire bull terrier
Originally a hunting dog, the Staffordshire bull terrier is prone to taking off and chasing things; however, with the proper training, this intelligent breed is more than capable of exhibiting good behavior in new environments.
These pups are well-known for their ability to stay calm, patient, and caring in the presence of children, so environments such as schools and children’s hospitals are particularly good places to take your Staffie therapy dog.
As one of the most intelligent dog breeds, poodles are always ready to learn new tasks. They love to please and learn quickly, so they’ll adapt easily to life as therapy dogs.They also come in three sizes (toy, miniature, and standard) and can fit well in various locations depending on where they fall size-wise.
As “thinkers,” poodles have strong personalities and will need focused training to work as therapy dogs. However, they’re sensitive to human emotions and can easily bring joy to those dealing with anxiety or mood disorders.
25. Yorkshire terrier
The Yorkie, perhaps best known for being carried around in purses and bags, is capable of sharing a great deal of joy and happiness with people.
This little terrier is affectionate, cuddly, and enjoys being around people. Yorkies that are new to therapy work, however, may need some training to help them become more comfortable around strangers. While small children aren’t always the best for a therapy Yorkie, this breed excels at comforting all kinds of people.
Is a therapy dog right for you?
These 25 breeds make great options for a therapy dog because of their natural temperaments, energy levels, and trainability, just to name a few considerations. If your pup portrays similar qualities, regardless of their breed, then they might work well as a therapy dog. When in doubt, reach out to a trainer or behaviorist for their opinion and help getting certified.
If you’re looking for more information on any of these 25 breeds, make betterpet.com your first visit. Our board-certified vets and pet experts provide updated resources and sound advice about pet care so you can make smarter decisions for your pet.