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Brown therapy dog in a red harness

The essentials

  • Therapy dogs differ from service dogs — While therapy dogs provide comfort and affection to people with physical or emotional pain, service dogs aid owners with their disabilities.
  • Temperament is key in therapy dog certification — Having a dog that can remain calm in stressful situations and doesn’t jump or bite is important.
  • Some breeds are more suited than others as therapy pets — Popular therapy dog breeds include social and trainable dogs like labrador retrievers, German shepherds, and Pomeranians.

Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes with a dog can understand why they can make good therapy pets. The mere presence of canines has been proven to help people experiencing physical or emotional pain. While interacting with a dog, hormones like serotonin and oxytocin are released into your brain, which can in turn elevate your mood. Our best friends can also lower blood pressure , encourage exercise, and help children with social development.

So what makes therapy dogs unique, and how does one go about getting their pup certified? While there are several organizations you can bring your dog to to have them registered as a therapy pet, you’ll want to first make sure that they complete the proper therapy dog training and meet the specific requirements of the facilities you plan to visit.

What is a therapy dog?

Therapy dogs have become increasingly popular in the United States, with over 50,000 certified dogs across the country. They provide comfort and affection towards groups or individuals experiencing mental or physical health problems such as anxiety, grief, or injury rehabilitation. They’ve been deployed to schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and elsewhere to help people take their minds off their struggles.

Certified therapy dogs shouldn’t be confused with service dogs, who have been trained to aid their owners with specific disabilities, such as epilepsy, diabetes, or visual impairment. Through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are allowed to go anywhere their handler needs, including airports, restaurants, and other businesses, while therapy pets are more limited in where they’re allowed, and this will vary by individual facility. Therapy dogs also differ from emotional support animals, who are intended to offer companionship to their owners and keep them calm.

Golden retriever therapy dog getting petted by a crowd of people

Traits and qualities of a therapy dog

Owners looking to undergo therapy dog certification need to understand that the qualifications of a therapy pet will not be the same as that of a service pet trained to carry out a specific task or tasks. Here are traits most therapy dog certifying organizations will look for:

  • Even temperament. Your canine pal shouldn’t be reactive and disorderly in potentially stressful situations. Consider if your pup is visiting a child who gets excited and grabs them by the ear or tugs on their tail. Your dog will need to remain calm in these situations instead of resorting to aggression.
  • Friendliness and sociability. This may seem obvious, as they will be working to cheer people up when they need it the most, but social etiquette can often be overlooked if a dog checks all the other boxes. While dogs will need to be outgoing and playful, they can’t get too overexcited and potentially jump on someone or start barking too much.
  • Adaptability. Therapy dogs will need to adapt to various environments, including highly stimulating or distracting ones with new sights and smells every time. If your dog is uncomfortable in new places, they may become shy, weary, or even aggressive in the situations that therapy dogs often find themselves in.
  • Leash etiquette. A lot of places that allow therapy pets require them to be on a lead at all times. Your dog must be trained to walk on a loose leash without pulling or biting on it.
  • Proper hygiene. Shedding and drooling can be a major problem for allergy sufferers. Frequent grooming can go a long way, but some dogs simply shed more than others and may be more limited as to where they’ll be welcomed.
  • Up-to-date health records. Many facilities, especially those like hospitals and hospices, will require therapy dogs to have updated records proving proof of vaccinations and the absence of any illnesses, parasites, or other medical issues.

Popular therapy dog breeds

You may be wondering if breed plays a role in which dogs can be certified as therapy pets. Organizations typically don’t have breed requirements in their certification process, as any purebred or mixed-breed dog can become a therapy pet with the right amount of training. That said, some breeds are more popular than others when it comes to this role due to their typical temperament, outgoingness, and affection.

Other types of therapy pets

Dogs are the most commonly used animal in the pet therapy world, but other species have also been tapped to perform this important work. Other types of therapy pets include:

  • Cats. Some facilities have made cats a permanent part of their therapy regimen, as they can easily weave in and out of rooms and may even choose to stay for a snooze or a snuggle.
  • Horses. While they’re often too large (unless they’re mini horses) to be brought into most facilities, individuals and groups have visited horses and other equines to help with issues like addiction, learning disabilities, or rehabilitation.
  • Small mammals. Smaller animals such as guinea pigs and rabbits are used for therapy work. They tend to form strong bonds with humans and enjoy strokes and cuddles, just like a dog or cat. Plus, they’re pretty low maintenance when it comes to care.

A step-by-step guide to therapy dog certification

From rewarding volunteer work to forging a strong canine-human bond, there are many reasons why you may want to form a therapy dog team. While the actual registration can be fairly simple, preparing for it can take some time and effort, so patience is key. Here are four steps owners will want to undergo for therapy dog certification:

  • Choosing a dog. If you don’t already have a dog, you’ll want to adopt or acquire one with the above characteristics in mind. Pups that are affectionate and show very few signs of aggression or reactivity may thrive better in overstimulating environments like a hospital or school. After you’ve found a shelter, rescue, or reputable breeder, talk to them about the dog’s experience and how they interact with other animals and people.
  • Training and socialization. Begin training and socializing your dog for therapy pet certification as soon as you bring them home. While some owners opt to train their dogs themselves, many professionals specialize in dog therapy training, including programs that will certify your dog upon completion of their course. Your training should use positive reinforcement to discourage bad behavior like jumping, barking, and chewing, as well as getting used to being around crowds.
  • Passing a prerequisite test. Once you feel your dog has been trained to exhibit positive behaviors, they are ready for more targeted training, highlighting obedience and behavioral skills. One such program is the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test . While the CGC test is not a therapy certification, many certifying organizations require dogs to pass it, and those who do will have a good chance of getting certified. The CGC test focuses on ten skills that include accepting friendly strangers, walking on a loose lead, coming when called, and having a relaxed response to distractions – all of which can come in handy during therapy dog visitations

  • Dog therapy certification. To get your dog officially certified as a pet owner, you’ll need to look up organizations in your area. The American Kennel Club (AKC) has a database of national therapy dog organizations they recognize, but there are also smaller, local, or regional groups across the country. The groups are listed alphabetically, but you can search your city or state to try and find the closest one to you. While some places allow you to apply online, others will require an in-person evaluation.

How to get started with your certified therapy dog

So now you’ve got a certified therapy dog. Hooray! But before you start throwing your dog into all kinds of different situations, it’s important to remember to start slow. Test the waters with friends or family members first before taking your dog to more formal therapy sessions at a healthcare or education facility. Bringing your dog into what could be an overwhelming situation, such as a bustling hospital or school full of young, loud kids, before they’re ready may cause more harm than good.

When you do feel your pup is ready for a traditional therapy pet visit, you can start by researching the organization you used to get certified.  Many of these groups provide databases of facilities and can pair you and your dog up with the right people based on your furbaby’s experience.

Volunteers are typically covered by a pet therapy organization’s liability insurance. We don’t recommend working independently without this kind of coverage, so be sure to do your homework if you choose to work with your therapy dog solo.

Potential setbacks and risks

Despite all of the benefits that therapy dogs have to offer both owners and the people they help, there are some risks associated with the practice that you’ll want to be aware of. The environments you are bringing them in aren’t exactly designed for hosting pets, so it’s important to stay vigilant in protecting your furry friend and others.

  • Allergic reactions. People who are allergic to animal dander may have reactions during a pet therapy session. Keep your therapy dog up to date on their grooming and make sure potential allergy sufferers are made aware ahead of your visit ahead of time.
  • Injury. Even if your dog isn’t aggressive or reactive, injuries in your pet or others can also occur. Some examples could include your dog inadvertently knocking over a child, or someone mishandling your pup and causing them pain. Help your dog get acquainted with the layout of the space upon arrival and brief people on how they should interact with your dog so no one gets hurt.
  • Attachment. In some cases, pet therapy can have an adverse effect on a person’s mental health if they become too attached to your dog and are reluctant to part ways with them at the end of a session. Try your best to clarify you’re only there for a visit and maybe make a plan to come back again if possible.
  • Sanitation. In some cases, your dog will be working with people experiencing an illness or injury. Pets carry all kinds of bacteria, so it’s important to keep your dog as clean as possible to prevent getting people further sick. For this reason, you may need to limit licking depending on the circumstances, as affectionate as it is. To protect your dog, keep them up to date on vaccinations and preventatives.
  • Misrepresentation. Unfortunately, some people try to pass their pets off as therapy or service dogs when they’re not, to bring them to public places. Not only is this practice illegal, but it’s dangerous, as these pets lack the proper training for these environments. It also makes it increasingly difficult for legitimate therapy pets to do their jobs, as facilities that have been lied to in the past are less likely to allow certified therapy dogs in the future.
Two therapy dogs greeting people on a public sidewalk

Best practices for bringing a therapy dog into your facility

You may be reading this from the perspective of someone looking to invite a therapy dog to their facility, in which case there are certain considerations you’ll want to keep in mind ahead of time. Here are tips and best practices for the visit.


Therapy dogs in schools can perform wonders. They relieve students’ stress, help kids learn, and even boost test scores and attendance. It’s important, however, to have someone running the program who understands the risk and stress levels for the dogs. For starters, parental permission should be acquired for each child to interact with the therapy dog.

Administrators should also take proactive steps if students are afraid of dogs or have allergies. At the same time, educators should be planning what activities the therapy dogs will be involved in and the best area to do it.


For a hospital patient, a visit from a furry companion can raise spirits, reduce anxiety and depression, improve cooperation with treatment, and even lessen pain.

Dr. Rekha Murthy, a medical director in the epidemiology department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and her team came up with a set of recommendations for pet therapy in healthcare facilities. The guidelines include developing safety protocols, designating one person to oversee the program (typically someone from their volunteer services department), and documenting all animal visits to make it easier to track outcomes.

Nursing homes

There are two common ways to introduce pets in a nursing home. The first is a live-in pet (or pets) to share among residents (cats are popular choices in these cases). The other method involves outside certified therapy pets coming in with their owners.

Planning to bring therapy pets into a nursing home is similar to when bringing them into a school. Having a game plan in place before the visit can solve a lot of stress and problems before they even occur. Learn which residents would or would not want a visit from the animal, what group activities the residents could do with them, and if there are any allergy or fear concerns among the residents.

👉 Interested in getting a visit from a certified therapy dog? Take a look at the AKC’s list of programs to get more information on scheduling a visit for your facility.

How to handle rejection with your therapy pet

It is important to note that therapy pets are not considered service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They have no guaranteed rights to enter animal-restricted areas such as grocery stores or public transportation and are only allowed where they have been invited to visit.

If you attempt to take your therapy dog with you to a school, hospital, or other facility and are asked to leave, you must oblige their request. To prevent this from happening to you, you should always call your destination ahead of time and see if they’ll allow your therapy pet to accompany you, or go through a pet therapy organization that can arrange it for you. If you are organizing your own pet therapy event or meeting, stick to public places where all pets are allowed, regardless of their certification.

With their sweet demeanors and sensitivities to human emotions, dogs have not only become a welcomed part of the pet therapy world but perhaps the most popular ones. Getting your pet properly certified as a therapy dog is the first step towards spreading the joy of their presence to people who need comfort, affection, and distraction from what they’re dealing with.

Frequently asked questions

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

To train your dog for therapy certification, focus on positive behaviors like gentle play and remaining relaxed in stressful situations. You’ll also want to expose them to distractions like something falling or breaking and teach them to remain calm in those situations.

Is a therapy dog the same as a service dog?

No, a therapy dog is intended to provide relief through comfort and affection to people besides their owners that are experiencing physical or emotional pain. Service dogs, on the other hand, are trained to aid their owners in their disabilities, such as seizure disorders, diabetes, PTSD, and visual impairment.

What does my dog need to qualify as a therapy dog?

To be a certified therapy pet, your dog must exhibit proper obedience training and the appropriate temperament for dealing with children, the elderly, or people experiencing physical or mental issues. Passing the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizens test can go a long way in getting your dog certified.

Where do I take my dog to get certified as a therapy pet?

The American Kennel Club has a database of pet therapy organizations in your area that can certify your dog as a therapy pet.

Is it hard to train a therapy dog?

As with any training, patience and consistency are key. Focus on qualities like calm interactions with strangers, walking on a loose leash, and good recall.