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Golden retriever therapy dog getting petted by a crowd of people

The essentials

  • Therapy animals can be used in a range of situations — You’ll find therapy dogs doing therapy work with hospice centers, hospitals, schools, shelters, individuals, and more.
  • Therapy work looks different across support pet types — All support pet types are different and do different jobs. Knowing the difference between a therapy dog, an emotional support animal, and a service dog is key before you start training. This prevents unrealistic expectations and training errors.
  • You and your pet will be a “therapy dog team” — The therapy dog training process requires dedication from dogs and owners alike, and depends on both yourself and your pet. Consider yourselves a team for all things therapy dog work!

Therapy dogs are most often deployed in hospitals, homes, and public settings, bringing happiness and helping people live more fulfilling lives. They are usually trained to provide mental health support, comforting and supporting those whom they visit with their handlers. They can work on a one-on-one basis, or they can be a part of a larger program, as often seen in nursing or retirement homes, medical facilities, and elsewhere.

Training a therapy dog is an involved process that relies on several external factors. For starters, the dog should have the right temperament for the job, and they should be able to successfully pass the therapy dog certification and titling process. They can do this via a quality therapy dog program

Read on to learn more about what the different types of support dogs are, training tips to help start your dog’s learning process, and training tips for you as a handler.

Therapy, service, and emotional support dogs

Before we dive into the specifics of therapy pets, it’s important to learn the differences between the three common types of working dogs.

Types of service-related dogs

Type Description Allowed access
Therapy dogs Therapy dogs go through specific therapy training to be able to provide relief to those in anxiety-provoking situations, bring comfort to those who are grieving or lonely, and offer affection to people who are in institutions such as hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. Therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs, and usually require prior approval to be in public spaces, such as schools, workplaces, or in travel settings. Places that may welcome therapy dogs include: Colleges Airports Hospitals Workplaces
Service dogs The main difference between a service dog and a therapy dog is that a service dog is trained in specific tasks to help disabled people, such as those with a seizure disorder, diabetes, or visual impairments, or those with special needs. Generally speaking, service dogs are legally protected and can go where their handler or owner goes for their health and safety. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, these pups can go anywhere their handler needs to go. These dogs have only one handler who they serve.
Emotional support animal (ESA) Emotional support dogs are prescribed by mental health professionals to help individuals with certain conditions. They provide comfort to their person just by their presence. Providing comfort is not a trained behavior; therefore, the dog is not considered an assistance or service dog under the ADA. Emotional support animals are in a class of their own, and may or may not be permitted in public spaces. Laws are often state-specific. Examples of places where ESAs might be allowed include housing areas (such as an apartment complex) or shelters.

Starting your therapy dog training journey

Our furry friends are often our best friends and loyal companions who are worthy of unconditional love. However, not every pup can cut it as a therapy dog — and that’s OK. Some dogs have a temperament that makes them great candidates for therapy dog training, and others don’t. Knowing what to look for and how to determine your pet’s eligibility is the first step forward in the therapy dog training process

In general, you’ll want to make sure that your dog exhibits certain positive behaviors and avoids negative ones. Dogs that like to jump on people, bark excessively, or chew on things won’t qualify. Overly shy dogs who can’t handle a high level of distraction and don’t like to approach people likely won’t make the cut, either.

The American Kennel Club (AKC) recommends that dogs pass the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test before registration. This exam focuses on ten key traits and tasks your dog should be able to do or display before going to therapy dog classes. We’ve covered each of these tasks and have linked a helpful video to get you started below:

It’s important to note that while these CGC skills aren’t formal requirements for your dog when becoming a properly trained therapy dog, they are strong recommendations that test for skills your dog will need to get through training and certification. Your dog might not have “straight A” passing marks on this checklist (yet), but trainability is the most important characteristic of a therapy dog. So if your dog lacks a skill but is trainable, they may be just fine with some patience and practice. 

1. Accepting a friendly stranger 

If your dog passes this portion of the test, they’ll allow a friendly stranger to approach and speak to their owner in a natural, everyday situation. This skill is included because therapy dogs will often be approached by bystanders and need to be able to keep their composure even if they’re distracted or stressed

2. Sitting politely for petting. 

Once again, your pet will be presented with several opportunities for cuddles and “loves” out in the wild. They’ll need to know how to react if a stranger approaches them with an open hand or if a stranger ends up petting them — by sitting patiently versus jumping up or getting overly excited.

3. Allowing appearance and grooming checks 

Staying still and allowing someone to check their ears and feet, as a groomer or veterinarian would do, says a lot about your dog’s overall temperament. Dogs should remain confident and calm, rather than guarded or aggressive. Ensuring that your dog remains calm can give you insight into their public behavioral skills and their ability to “keep cool” when people interact with them. 

4. Walking calmly on the street  

Polite and submissive walking skills are key to keeping both therapy dogs and their owners safe. Evaluators will check to see if your dog will walk politely on a loose lead with you or another trusted handler. They’ll check to ensure that your pet doesn’t pull on the leash and that they don’t get easily distracted by the surrounding environment.

5. Walking calmly in a crowd 

This evaluation tests to see if a dog can walk through crowds of people with calmness and confidence, testing their ability to remain focused in distracting or packed areas.

6. Sitting and staying 

Therapy dogs will often be put into positions where they need to stay put. With this in mind, mastering the “sit, down, and stay” sequence of basic commands will keep both the dog and the handler safe in these situations. It also evaluates the risk of the dog running away or chasing distractions, assessing if they can wait until the owner gives the “release” command.

7. Coming when called 

In this test, the evaluators will determine if the dog will come when called by their owner from at least ten feet away on a long leash. This ensures that the dog has the attention span and capacity to come when called , even when distractions or distance are present. 

8. Reacting positively to other pets 

Evaluators will check to see if the therapy dog candidate will behave politely around other dogs. During the test, two handlers and their dogs must approach each other from about 20 feet away, stop to shake hands, and exchange pleasantries while their dogs wait patiently.

9. Reacting calmly to distractions 

The evaluator will select and present two distractions to which the dog must react properly. Properly, in this case, means that the dog won’t overreact, bark excessively, or show fear. Instead, they should react with nonchalance or acknowledgment, and then redirect their attention to their owner. 

10. Reacting positively to separation or being left with a stranger 

Evaluators conduct this test to see if the dog can be successfully separated from their owner and left with a trusted person. The evaluator will hold the dog’s leash while the owner goes out of sight for three minutes. They will then observe the dog’s behavior over this time, ensuring that they remain calm and focused. 

If your dog can pass the CGC test, there’s a good chance they’ll be approved as a therapy dog. Once they pass, take things slowly and test the waters with friends or family members before taking your dog to more formal therapy visitations. Throwing your dog into what could be an overwhelming situation before they’re ready may cause more harm than good. 

Once you have chosen a dog to bring home, you should begin the training process as soon as possible. Some dog owners prefer to do the training themselves, but getting advice from people who train animals for a living can save you time and help ensure that your dog has what they need to be ready to see people.

Assessing yourself to be a handler

Determining if your dog is ready to be a therapy dog is one of the most important steps in the therapy dog training process — and so is the human evaluation, too. Anyone can learn how to be a good therapy dog handler, but it will take focused work, patience, and determination to do so. 

Would you be a good handler? Here are some characteristics and skills to check for: 

  • You’re patient. Training a dog (and yourself!) can be tough work. Patience is key to a smooth learning process. 
  • You’re kind. You genuinely want both you and your dog to do well, and you show it. 
  • You’re resilient. Training isn’t for the faint of heart. You must bounce back from setbacks and continue to move forward in a positive direction.
  • You’re confident. You know what you need and what you expect, and you’re not afraid to communicate that to others or your therapy dog-in-training. 
  • You’re trustworthy. You’re ready to put the work in with your pet to make this the best relationship possible, and you’re ready to see them through the training process through both the highs and lows. 

Experts encourage aspiring therapy dog handlers to meet with others like them in the community — which can easily be done by joining a national or local group or organization chapter. They also suggest that handlers seek mentorship from more experienced handlers and experts, consuming information to help prepare them to be a trainer/handler their pet can trust. 

🐕 Doing this internal work early on can streamline your pet’s training process, laying the groundwork for some seriously powerful and engaging training sessions.  We all learn from each other, pets and pet parents included! 

Understanding the different types of service animals and the laws around each type is a vital first step before undergoing the training process. You can work with senior trainers and your veterinarian to determine if you and your pet are strong candidates, taking each step in the process as it comes. 

The AKC’s CGC test is a good place to start, but other options exist, including local dog trainers and online training classes. Be sure to choose trainers that have CCPDT certification, which guarantees that your pet will be put through fear-free training. 

In short, therapy dog training and therapy dog work can be incredibly rewarding for both pets and people and can impact the lives of pet parents, their families, and the recipients of therapy dog visits all in positive, powerful ways.

Frequently asked questions

How can I train my dog to be a therapy animal? 

There are plenty of programs out there that can help your pet to become a certified therapy dog. Before starting those, however, it’s generally recommended to do a few self-assessments for both yourself and your pet. A good place to start is with the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test, which determines if your dog has the temperament and capabilities needed to be a successful therapy dog. 

How long does it take to train a dog to be a therapy dog? 

Every dog learns differently, which means that your training phase can vary in length. On average, most therapy dog training programs run for six to eight weeks. 

What commands to teach a therapy dog? 

Therapy dogs will often use the same commands to function in public (and in private) as non-certified dogs will. Common helpful commands include sit, sit and stay, lie down, and release. 

Will my dog make a good therapy dog? 

Not all dogs succeed as therapy dogs. Generally speaking, if your dog is social, trainable, and has a generally friendly demeanor, they’ll do well as a therapy dog. 

What is PSA training? 

PSA training is for dogs who will be psychiatric service animals, or PSAs. This type of training helps them to identify mental health conditions or symptom flare-ups for psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety and bipolar disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PSAs are categorized as service animals, and thus are afforded all of the legal protections as other service dogs under the ADA.