9 August, 2017

Therapy Dogs 101: The #1 Guide

girl in hospital receiving pet therapy from golden retriever
Therapy dogs offer something unique, making them stand out amongst the other doggies and kitties out there. Trained to care, therapy animals visit the young and the old from schools to nursing homes helping those in need.

Want to learn more about the impact therapy animals leave? Keep reading and carry on.

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What is a Therapy Dog?

Therapy Dog Definition:

Therapy dogs are canines that are trained to provide comfort and affection to people in retirement homes, nursing homes, hospices, schools, hospitals, and disaster areas, and also to people with autism. Therapy Dogs work in animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy, typically alongside their owner/handlers who consider them the canines to be their personal pets.

Therapy dogs come in all shapes, sizes and breeds, and they differ from service dogs in many regards.

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Difference Between Therapy Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs and Service Dogs

When you hear “assistance animal”, you think of a pet who can help with physical or mental disabilities. However, only emotional support animals and service animals get to claim this title.

Therapy animals are not classified as assistance animals on the account that they don’t belong to one owner rather and organization. Multiple people get to experience their love and care, not just one.

If you are looking for a dog to tend to your own emotional/mental needs, take the free, 5-minute pre-screening now and see if you qualify for an ESA. If so, you’ll get connected to a licensed mental health professional in your state today.

Therapy Dog Requirements

Therapy Dogs must:

  • Be well-tempered
  • Well-socialized
  • Enjoy human touch
  • Comfortable in busy or stressful settings
  • Not shed excessively
  • Love to cheer others up!

NOTE: Due to liability concerns, most organizations require therapy dogs to be fully certified and temperament tested (unlike emotional support animal training, which is only heavily encouraged).

A therapy dog’s primary duty is to make affectionate contact with unfamiliar people in sometimes-stressful environments, and thus, aside from the animal’s training, the most important characteristic of a therapy dog is its temperament.

Therapy dogs must have a calm and stable temperament and must be able to tolerate children, other animals, crowded public places and other situations which may be stressful, without becoming distressed or dangerous.

A good therapy dog must be friendly, confident, gentle in all situations and must be comfortable and contented with being petted and handled, sometimes clumsily.

Additionally, the dog must possess the ability to be lifted or assisted onto an individual’s lap or bed, and must also be able to sit or lie comfortably there.

Read more about Therapy Dog Requirements.

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Types of Therapy Dogs

man petting golden retriever for dog therapy

There are several different types of therapy dogs:

  • Therapeutic Visitation Dogs
  • Disaster Relief Dogs
  • Facility Therapy Dogs
  • Animal Assisted Therapy Dogs
  • Reading Therapy Dogs

Therapeutic Visitation Dogs

“Therapeutic Visitation Dogs” are household pets whose owners take time to visit places like hospitals, nursing homes, schools, detention facilities, and rehabilitation facilities.

Many of the people in such places must be away from home due to physical or mental illness, detention, or court order. For many of these people, a visit from a therapy dog can go a long way to help lift spirits, ease stress, anxiety, and depression, and motivate people by providing affection.

Disaster Relief Dogs

Much like Therapeutic Visitation Dogs, Disaster Relief Dogs and their handlers help bring comfort and consolation to people who have suffered a traumatic or violent experience.

Disaster Relief Dogs have also helped provide solace to victims of terrorist attacks, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 9/11 attacks, and the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, CT.

Facility Therapy Dogs

“Facility Therapy Dogs” are canines that primarily live and work in nursing homes.

These special types of therapy dogs are often trained to help keep patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other mental illnesses out of trouble. Facility therapy dogs are handled by a trained member of the staff and typically live at the facility.

Animal Assisted Therapy Dogs

“Animal Assisted Therapy” dogs augment physical and occupational therapists in meeting goals important to a person’s physical or mental recovery.

Animal Assisted Therapy dogs typically work in physical rehabilitation facilities and common tasks include helping a patient regain limb motion, fine motor skills and regaining pet care skills for their personal pets.

Reading Therapy Dogs

“Reading Therapy Dogs” are pet dogs that accompany their owner/handlers into schools and public libraries where they assist children who struggle with reading.

Many children who experience reading difficulties develop self-esteem issues or become self-conscious when reading in front of classmates or parents, and the main purpose of a reading therapy dog is to lay beside a child and create a dog-friendly atmosphere that allows students to practice their reading skills in a non-judgmental environment.

Reading therapy dogs not only help children to feel more comfortable and confident when reading, but they also help students become excited about practicing his or her reading skills.

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Therapy Dog Breeds

dog with therapy dog vest

Although any size dog can make a great therapy animal, small dogs are particularly well-suited for the job because they can be easily lifted onto a person’s hospital bed, or held in the patient’s arms.

When choosing a canine to serve as a therapy dog, the most important things to bear in mind are the animal’s temperament and how easily the dog can be trained. A good therapy dog must have a calm and gentle demeanor and must enjoy human touch.

Although any breed can make a great therapy dog, some of the best breeds for therapy work are:

Small Breeds:

  • Chihuahua
  • Corgi
  • French Bulldog
  • Pug
  • King Charles Spaniel
  • Dachshund
  • Bichon Frise
  • Beagle
  • Yorkie
  • Pomeranian

Large Breeds:

  • Golden Retriever
  • Labrador Retriever
  • German Shepherd
  • Greyhound
  • Rottweiler
  • Saint Bernard
  • Poodle
  • Great Dane
  • Mastiff
  • Bernese Mountain Dog

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Therapy Dog Training

therapy dog training dogs

Practically any dog, regardless of breed, may be eligible for therapy dog certification, provided that it can pass the required training and temperament testing, such as the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test.

Passing the CGC Test is a requirement for many therapy dog groups, and the official AKC test includes:

Sitting politely for petting

The dog will allow a friendly stranger to pet it while it is out with its handler.

Appearance and grooming

The dog will permit someone to check it’s ears and front feet, as a groomer or veterinarian would do.

Walking on a loose lead

Following the evaluator’s instructions, the dog will walk on a loose lead (with the handler/owner).

Walking through a crowd

This test demonstrates that the dog can move about politely in pedestrian traffic and is under control in public places. The dog and handler walk around and pass close to several people (at least three).

Sit and lay down on command

The dog must do sit AND down on command, then the owner chooses the position for leaving the dog in the stay.

Coming when called

This test demonstrates that the dog will come when called by the handler (from 10 feet on a leash).

Reaction to another dog

This test demonstrates that the dog can behave politely around other dogs. Two handlers and their dogs approach each other from a distance of about 20 feet, stop, shake hands and exchange pleasantries.

Reaction to distraction

The evaluator will select and present two distractions such as dropping a chair, etc.

Supervised separation

This test demonstrates that a dog can be left with a trusted person, if necessary, and will maintain training and good manners.

Evaluators are encouraged to say something like, “Would you like me to watch your dog?” and then take hold of the dog’s leash. The owner will go out of sight for three minutes.

The dog does not have to stay in position but should not continually bark, whine, or pace unnecessarily, or show anything stronger than mild agitation or nervousness.

Read more about Therapy Dog Training.

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Therapy Dog Certification

corgi receiving therapy dog certification by visiting nursing home

There are many different organizations which offer therapy dog certification and/or registration, and each organization has its own standards and protocols.

However, all organizations that deal with therapy dog certification typically share common ground in their training and temperament requirements for any therapy dog candidates.

Additionally, some medical institutions require therapy dogs to be registered or certified by an official organization, prior to allowing the dog-handler-team to operate on their premises.

Read more about Therapy Dog Certification.

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Therapy Dog Resources

Be sure to check out our free therapy dog and handler resources, which include:

  • Handler Rights and Responsibilities
  • Therapy Dog Training
  • Therapy Dog FAQ

See the complete collection of Therapy Dog Resources.

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Spending time with animals produces marked improvements in humans, affecting the physical, mental, emotional and social aspects of their well-being. Stress leads to an overproduction of stress hormones, and in-turn increased blood pressure, heart rate, and chance of heart attack and stroke. As you will see in the list, below, a visit with a therapy animal does much to reverse the effects of stress.

Visiting with an animal can reduce anxiety without the need for medication, or elicit positive reminiscing in clients with progressed dementia. Therapy animal teams frequently witness measurable improvements as well, for example in visiting with chemotherapy patients in order to lower their blood pressure to a level acceptable for treatment.

Therapy Dog Benefits: Mental Health

1. Decrease in stress and anxiety, including that from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

2. Decrease in depression, loneliness and feelings of isolation

3. Decrease in aggressive behaviors

4. Increase in socialization with an outward focus, including opportunities for laughter and a sense of happiness and well-being

5. Increase in mental stimulation, attention skills, and verbal interactions

6. Increase in spirit, self-esteem, and feeling of acceptance, enabling a patient to further participate in mental and physical therapy, to be more involved in group activities, and to accept social and emotional support.

therapy cat helping autistic woman

Therapy Dog Benefits: Physical Health

1. Decrease in blood pressure

2. Decrease in heart rate

3. Decrease in the stress hormone cortisol

4. Increase in hormones associated with health and a feeling of well-being, including beta-endorphin, beta-phenylethylamine, dopamine, oxytocin, prolactin and serotonin

5. Increase in level of fitness by providing stimulus for exercise, with improvement in activities in which they were limited

6. Improvement in fine motor skills, standing balance, wheelchair and other physical skills

In addition, the benefits listed above may result in a decrease in a person’s need for medications.

Although any size dog can make a great therapy animal, small dogs are particularly well-suited for the job because they can be easily lifted onto a person’s hospital bed, or held in the patient’s arms. When choosing a canine to serve as a therapy dog, the most important things to bear in mind are the animal’s temperament and how easily the dog can be trained.

best therapy dog breeds taking therapy dog training classes

A good therapy dog must have a calm and gentle demeanor and must enjoy human touch. Although any breed can make a great therapy dog, some of the best therapy dog breeds are:

Therapy Dog Breeds – Small Breeds:

  • Chihuahua
  • Corgi
  • French Bulldog
  • Pug
  • King Charles Spaniel
  • Dachshund
  • Bichon Frise
  • Beagle
  • Yorkie
  • Pomeranian

Therapy Dog Breeds – Large Breeds:

  • Golden Retriever
  • Labrador Retriever
  • German Shepherd
  • Greyhound
  • Rottweiler
  • Saint Bernard
  • Poodle
  • Great Dane
  • Mastiff
  • Bernese Mountain Dog

Pet Therapy’s Magic: The Facts You Need to Know about Training

If you have a dog, it may not need any training at all! Therapy dogs simply have to be very obedient, tolerant, and social. And your dog is all of these things, right?

Dogs are brought to therapy dog evaluations that aren’t even close to being ready for therapy dog work. They bark and pull at other dogs, and have to be taken from the room to get them under control.

If your dog needs additional training, check to see if a local therapy dog organization offers a training program or can refer you to one. Many professional dog trainers offer group classes designed to prepare you and your dog for a therapy dog evaluation.

If you have another species of animal, check with the therapy animal organization you plan to work with to learn about their evaluation so you can determine what additional training, if any, your animal will need.

Training for the handler differs with the different therapy animal organizations. Some require that you attend a training program, while others require that you and your animal attend a training program together. Still others allow you to go directly to an evaluation. Also some organizations allow home schooling on-line or from printed materials.

pet therapy dogs training

A few therapy dog organizations only require that you submit a copy of an AKC Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) Program certification along with your application in order to register with them. Most organizations, however, require that you be evaluated by members of their own.

If an organization offers a training program, it’s a great way to prepare for their evaluation. But whether they do or not, one of the best things you can do to prepare is to volunteer to assist at an evaluation and observe those being evaluated.

One of the most important things you can do during your evaluation, and in the therapy animal work you do afterward, is to be proactive. Most organizations do not treat the evaluation like an obedience trial, where a dog is to perform flawlessly with only minimal direction from its handler. In an evaluation, you are welcome to assist your animal just as you would on the job.

Here are a couple of examples of therapy dog handlers being proactive:

1. If you see another dog enter the room, tell your dog so it doesn’t feel the need to tell you with a bark. This is being proactive, rather than acting after your dog barks, which would be reactive. Or doing nothing, which would be inactive.

2. Let’s say three people are aggressively moving toward your dog and asking to pet it. That could be scary! So be proactive, and reach down and pick up your dog or bend down and physically connect with it. It will then feel secure with your contact, and should be fine being petting by any number of people.

Therapy Dogs Laws

A therapy dog is a pet trained to interact with many people other than its handler to make those people feel better. Therapy dogs are also trained to behave safely around all sorts of people, and are often certified.

A therapy dog handler is not given public access rights by any service dog laws to take the dog out everywhere like service dog users, because the handler does not have a disability the dog is individually trained to mitigate. Therapy dogs are only allowed into places like hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and libraries by prior agreement (again, not by service dog laws).

man petting border collie learning how to get a therapy dog

Why a Therapy Dog Matters to You

A good therapy dog must be friendly, confident, gentle in all situations and must be comfortable and contented with being petted and handled, sometimes clumsily.

Therapy dogs must have a calm and stable temperament and must be able to tolerate children, other animals, crowded public places and other situations which may be stressful, without becoming distressed or dangerous. Additionally, some institutions require that any therapy dogs working on their premises be fully insured and trained, and sometimes that they be certified by an accredited organization.

There are many different organizations which offer therapy dog certification and/or registration, and each organization has its own standards and protocols. However, all organizations that deal with therapy dog certification typically share common ground in their training and temperament requirements for any therapy dog candidates.

Additionally, some medical institutions require therapy dogs to be registered or certified by an official organization, prior to allowing the dog-handler-team to operate on their premises.

If you have an emotional support animal, it might be worth while to sign them as a therapy dog as a part-time job. It’s only an endless cycle of love, comfort, and more love.

And if you think you could benefit from an ESA first, take the pre-screening today to see if you could qualify for one.