How to Get a Therapy Dog: Make Your Dog a Community Hero

By: Kathryn Anderson Updated: September 16, 2021

how to get a therapy dog golden retriever visiting woman in hospitalHave you ever wondered what a day in the life of a therapy dog may look like? Do they actually work like dogs – and what does that mean anyway?! Therapy dogs (and other types of therapy animals) have a very special role. A therapy dog can be any breed of dog. An existing pooch can also be suitable for therapy dog training. Read on to find out about how to get a therapy dog!

It is a “must” for a therapy dog to remain cool, calm and collected at all times with anyone. What is also must for people is to know the difference between a therapy animal, a service animal, and an emotional support animal.


Duty Calls! What Therapy Dogs Do!

Before answering “how to get a therapy dog” it might be good to know exactly what it is that therapy dogs do! Therapy dogs have the ability to be able to bring comfort and stress relief to a variety of people in different locations and situations.

You may have seen a therapy dog at work in residential care facilities, hospitals, hospice, or day programs. Maybe you’ve seen them in schools with autistic children or rehabilitation centers. Therapy dogs also help out in academic institutions to help students through exam stress and anxiety.

Therapy dogs at airport terminals help those with pre-flight jitters relax before boarding. In the recovery phase after a natural disaster, therapy dogs have also helped community members.

What the therapy dog will actually be doing in these types of situations is all about social support. Therapy dogs visit with people and provide companionship and relief from stress.

Imagine finding yourself (although hopefully not!) unexpectedly hospitalized in another city. You may well find yourself saying you’re expecting “company”. This will be in the form of a four-legged fur ball, with their volunteer handler, during visiting hours.

Emotional Support Animals Make Some of the Best Therapy Dogs! 

What are the qualities of a therapy dog that an emotional support dog may already have? That would be their innate ability to be gentle, kind, calm and sensitive and responsive to the emotions of human beings. These are the very same traits and characteristics in an animal people usually look for in an emotional support animal.

If you’re wondering whether an emotional support animal might be right for you personally, at Certapet we offer a free online 5-minute pre-screening that determines whether you’re eligible for an ESA.

If you qualify, we will connect you with a licensed mental health professional (LMHP)and you could have your ESA letter in as little as 48 hrs.

Dog Therapy? Interactions with Canine Companions Have Massive Benefits!

Oh yes, the benefits of human and canine interaction are therapeutic! Researchers interested in animal-assisted therapy have conducted many studies that show the benefits that these interactions. So, what are the therapeutic benefits for people?

  • Physically, sharing time with a dog, or another emotional support animal, can help with lower your blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Psychologically, time with an animal companion can help relieve depression, stress, and anxiety. In other words, a cat or canine can lift your mood!
  • Emotionally, assistance animals are often a “match” in some way with the people they help. The emotional bond, empathy, and connection with an assistance animal help with feeling that it’s okay to be you. For example, in a rehabilitation setting, you might see a therapy dog that has lost a limb. They may help people who are coming to terms with a similar disability.
  • Educationally, animals have much to teach us! There is so much to learn from the interaction with an animal about unconditional love, and caring for another living being.

therapy dog german shepherd visiting elderly man

What is the Difference Between ESAs, Service, and Therapy Animals?

Because they help people, emotional support animals (ESA), service animals, and therapy animals are often thought of as one and the same. But there are important differences. The main differences between the animals themselves are the training they receive to do their “job”. They also provide different types of assistance.

For people, there are differences in legal rights to have their animal with them in various places. In terms of legal jargon, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals and emotional support animals are defined as assistance animals, but therapy animals are not!

  • Emotional Support Animals: An emotional support animal receives no specific “job” training. Their job is to provide support and comfort to someone with an emotional or psychological disability. An ESA or companion dog can assist with symptoms of conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and mood disorders. ESAs are mostly dogs and cats, but just about any type of animal can be an ESA if you share a bond with it!
  • Service Animals: Service animals are trained to do very specific tasks for people with disabilities. These assistance dogs may help a person with their mobility, vision, hearing, or other physical disabilities. A psychiatric service dog is usually trained to respond to specific symptoms. Service animals, such as guide dogs, can go in more public places than other animals because of the needs of the person’s disability.
  • Therapy Animals: Therapy animals do need to be trained in obedience. This is to ensure they are able to stay calm and relaxed with different people, animals, and environments. While they are at “work” with their handler and in a group setting they may be allowed in a public facility (upon invitation and with granted permission). Otherwise, as with any other pet, the rules of individual establishments apply.


How to Get a Therapy Dog is Easier Than You Think!

Thanks to the good folk at many volunteer therapy dog programs, it is easy to arrange for the joy of a therapy animal visit. These organizations are the people who can answer all your questions about how to get a therapy dog. Contact a therapy dog organization such as Paws for Ability, Therapy Dogs United, or Therapy Dogs International. These types of organizations will coordinate visits from volunteers with their very special handler and dog teams.

These dog organizations can also help with deciding if you and an existing pet or emotional support dog may be good candidates for therapy dog training and how to certify therapy dogs. To receive the AKC therapy dog title, a therapy organization offering the training needs to be certified by the American Kennel Club.

The 3 Therapy Dog Requirements These Hero Dogs Need

Therapy dogs can be any shape, size, breed, or age – there are no special requirements there! But not all dogs are suited to providing therapy or emotional support to a group of people! You can do all the research in the world about how to get a therapy dog, but you need to be sure your doggo checks the therapy dog boxes!

Some of the important traits needed to become a trained and certified therapy dog are:

  1. Temperament: Therapy dogs must be naturally friendly and relaxed with everyone. This includes men, women, and children of all ages, as well as other animals. They must be able to not only handle but also enjoy different people who may wish to literally ruffle their fur or try to pet any part of their body! Non-aggressiveness is a must.
  2. Responsiveness: Therapy dogs need to be responsive to their handler with a little more than basic obedience. This is because a therapy dog may be helping people who are nervous or in stressful situations. So they need to be able to quickly and calmly respond to cues and instructions.
  3. Good hygiene and general health: Therapy dogs need to be up to date with all their vaccinations and shots. They also need to be kept clean and groomed – no one likes to spend time with a smelly dog!

Passing the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen dog certification program can be a good first step!

therapy dogs doing therapy dog training

Therapy Dogs Fall Mainly Fall Under the Following Two Categories

There are two main categories of therapy dogs. These relate to both the roles they play and the people who they are benefitting.

Animal Assisted Therapy

With Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) time is “prescribed” as part of a treatment plan. A physical or mental health professional such as an occupational therapist, psychologist, social worker, or similar, requests AAT.  The aim is to help someone with an aspect of their mental or physical health or recovery.

Animal Assisted Activities Therapy

You find Animal Assisted Activities Therapy offered in programs. AAAT takes place in care facilities, prisons, hospitals, schools, libraries, and so forth. They may help people with physical movement – taking a dog for a short walk has many benefits! Or, they may help with things like reading and writing programs – try reading aloud to a nonjudgmental dog or cat – it works!

Rescue Dogs Have as Much to Offer as Any Other Dogs! If Not More!

Never ever rule out a rescue dog if you are looking for an emotional support animal or pet! Rescue animals come in all shapes and sizes, and you may be surprised at the resilience of a rescue pet. They can make an awesome therapy animal. “How to get a therapy dog” is not exclusive to pedigrees or designer breeds! Rescue dogs have a lot to offer!

shelter dog waiting to be adopted

Adopt! Don’t Shop! Shelters are Overflowing with Potential Therapy Dogs and ESAs!

Most shelters have visiting times when you can drop in to meet and greet the animals they have up for adoption. This is often the best way to find your perfect match and type of emotional support animal!

Animals in shelters have also already undergone some impartial observations and assessments. So you’ll get some good advice on the temperament and existing levels of training of a potential therapy dog or ESA. It’s not just about a canine though, you may find yourself opting for a therapy cat instead to help with your mental health!

Getting an ESA really does not have to be a harrowing process. Simply take CertaPet’s free pre-screening to get started! After that, how to get a therapy dog is your next step. Luckily that process is an easy one too!

Common Questions on How to Get a Therapy Dog

Where do you find a therapy dog to visit?

Can any dog be a therapy dog?

Who trains therapy dogs?

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