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The verdict has long been that owning a dog is good for our physical, mental ,and emotional health.
As such, it makes sense that dogs can be valuable allies when it comes to supporting the most vulnerable people, such as individuals undergoing long-term medical treatment, older people living alone in retirement homes, and families recovering from disasters.
The dogs trained to fulfill this function are known as therapy dogs.
While any dog can be trained and certified as a therapy dog, there are certain characteristics that make certain breeds more suitable for this function than others.
In this article, we will dive into what exactly therapy dogs are, what they do, and what qualifies a dog to be a therapy dog.
We will also look at what characteristics are needed to be a good therapy dog and the 15 breeds that best match these that, therefore, are best suited to this type of work.
Spoiler Alert: We think that Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers make the best therapy dogs.
Contents & Quick Navigation
- What Are Therapy Dogs?
- Characteristics Of Therapy Dogs
- 15 Best Dog Breeds For Therapy Dogs
- The Verdict
- Top Picks For Our Dogs
What Are Therapy Dogs?
According to a study conducted by Psychology Today, pet owners tend to have greater self-esteem, be more physically fit, are less lonely, more conscientious, are more socially outgoing, and have healthier relationship styles.
If just owning a dog can have these benefits, imagine the possibilities of actively working with dogs to support the well-being of vulnerable members of the community. This is the rationale behind therapy dogs.
Officially, therapy dogs are dogs that have been trained to provide affection, comfort, and support to people who need it, often people that are in hospital, retirement homes, nursing homes, hospices, schools, libraries, or disaster areas.
Therapy dogs are different from service dogs, which include guide dogs for the blind as well as diabetes detection dogs. Service dogs have been trained to complete very specific tasks for a particular disabled individual. These dogs are granted special access to public places so that they can accompany their owner at all times.
This right is not extended to therapy dogs, which are usually granted specific access to the locations where they are working.
Therapy dogs are also different from Emotional Support dogs, which are prescribed to support individuals by a mental health professional.
Dogs must pass a series of tests in order to be certified as therapy dogs and be permitted to work. Exact requirements depend on the authorizing organization, but usually include being social around people and other animals, not jumping and barking, and being able to walk loosely on a leash.
See the Alliance of Therapy Dogs for more information.
Therapy dogs have a long history, and it was in fact Florence Nightingale that pioneered the idea of animal-assisted therapy, using dogs to relieve the anxiety of patients living in psychiatric institutions.
Sigmund Freud would also sometimes use dogs in his work to put patients at ease and help them open up. In 1976, Elaine Smith started a program to train dogs to visit institutions, and since then the use of therapy dogs has grown rapidly.
Today there are two general types of therapy dogs:
- Therapeutic Visitation Dogs – these are usually household pets that owners take to institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes to engage with patients in a social way.
- Animal-Assisted Therapy Dogs – these dogs are generally based in an institution and, as well as providing emotional support, they are usually trained to complete more specific tasks such as walking patients through activities to help them practice certain motor skills.
Therapy dogs have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression as well as just generally boosting the moods of the patients that they engage with.
They can support patients in developing social skills, and they can make patients more open to participating in the therapy process and just feel more comfortable in what is often a strange situation.
Characteristics Of Therapy Dogs
While any dog can be trained to be a therapy dog, there are certain characteristics that a dog should display in order to be a likely candidate.
Therapy dogs should be intelligent dogs. These dogs need to be good at reading people so that they know when it is time to play, and when it is time to stay calm and just be present.
They also need to be able to adapt to ever-changing situations as they are taken to new places and meeting new people. For this, you definitely want an intelligent dog that will quickly pick up on what is going on around them.
Therapy dogs need to be extremely well trained, both to complete specific tasks, such as leading patients through certain activities, and to be highly controllable within the institutional environment within which they are working.
Therapists and patients alike should be able to call a dog to their side or command them to sit with an easy command, no matter what else is going on in the space.
Dogs that are highly trainable make the best therapy dogs as they are required to learn new things. For example, some dogs can pick up a new command after seeing or hearing it fewer than five times.
Other dogs may need to see a command repeated more than 100 times before it sticks in their heads.
The environments in which therapy dogs are asked to work are often turbulent and unpredictable. They are full of people, noises, and distractions. For this reason, therapy dogs need to be able to focus on an individual or task.
A person suffering from social anxiety won’t feel better if their therapy dog is distracted by every new person that walks through the door.
Therapy dogs need to have a calm temperament. While there is always time to play, therapy dogs can’t be jumping up on new people when they meet them.
They may also need to be able to sit calmly with a patient for extended periods of time without growing restless.
While high energy dogs can make great therapy dogs, they need to know how to channel their energy appropriately.
Therapy dogs need to like being around people and other animals; they will likely not be the only animal working in their institution.
Dogs that get anxious around other animals, small children, or big crowds aren’t suitable for this type of work.
They will also be required to quickly form bonds with the patients that they are supporting, so dogs that adore people make the best therapy dogs.
Comfortable Being Touched
Not all dogs like to be touched, and while some dogs like a good stroke, they may have trigger areas of their bodies that are off-limits, and they might snap if they are touched there.
Patients need to be able to touch therapy dogs without fear, including when they first get to know each other and they might not yet already know the dog’s sensitive areas. Dogs that enjoy being touched make better therapy dog candidates.
Some dogs are extremely friendly, but they don’t always know their own strength and may rub up against or barge into small children and the elderly with too much strength, potentially injuring them.
Therapy dogs need to be aware of their size and strength and they need to know how to engage in a gentle manner. It is also useful if they have a soft mouth to play and pick up things without damaging them.
Therapy dogs are often called to work in environments that need to be kept clean for a variety of reasons, such as hospitals and nursing homes.
As such, therapy dogs also need to be clean and need to bring as few nasties into their environment as possible.
This means that they should always be immaculately groomed, and low shedding dogs and dogs that don’t drool to excess also make better options.
15 Best Dog Breeds For Therapy Dogs
While making a good therapy dog is primarily about good training, some dog breeds are better suited to the role than others, and therefore, have a head start when it comes to preparing to become a therapy dog.
Here are 15 of the best breeds for working as Therapy Dogs.
As a note, we have only included purebred dogs on this list. This is not to say that mixed breeds don’t make good therapy dogs, some have the ideal temperament. But the characteristics of mix breed dogs are more difficult to predict.
The character traits of purebred dogs are relatively consistent, while mixed bred dogs can be an unpredictable combination.
1. Labrador Retriever
Labrador Retrievers pretty much top the list of dogs suitable for all types of work, including acting as service dogs, emotional support dogs, and therapy dogs. They are intelligent, adaptable, and relatively easy to train.
They have the ability to stay focused on task and love to please people. They also have a calm, patient, and affectionate temperament that makes them perfectly suited for spending time with the vulnerable.
While these dogs are relatively large, they are also gentle and don’t usually have accidents with small and frail people.
Also, despite having lots of energy, Labradors are calm, and they won’t have any problem sitting still for hours with a patient if that is what is needed.
2. Golden Retriever
Like Labradors, you often see Golden Retrievers in working roles as they are perfectly suited to them. They are intelligent, gentle, and friendly, plus they look friendly, so people have no problem approaching and embracing them.
Goldens are probably one of the most social and people-friendly of all the breeds. They can be especially suitable for working with children, and they are very gentle with kids despite their large size.
If you are worried about shedding with a Golden (or a Lab), consider getting a Poodle cross, so a Goldendoodle or Labradoodle, which have the low-shedding coat of a Poodle.
Poodles also make great therapy dogs, and not just because they don’t shed (or drool).
Unlike most dog breeds that were bred for a certain type of work, Poodles were bred to be companions, so they love being around people, and they are also very good at reading people and picking up in their emotions.
Poodles are also incredibly smart, which makes them adaptable and easy to train. Poodles also come in a range of sizes, so it is easy to find a Poodle to fit every situation. Plus, some patients may love spending hours grooming a Poodle’s gorgeous coat.
These balls of fluff are perfect for cozying up on a patient’s lap. But these little guys aren’t just cute, they are curious and have loads of personality, so people fall in love with them instantly.
Their intense curiosity about the world is infectious, and patients can be distracted for hours by what these guys are up to.
At the same time, this breed is intelligent and obedient, so they can fit into the sometimes difficult situations demanded of therapy dogs. They also love being touched; no growls or snaps here.
5. French Bulldog
This is another dog breed that is highly intelligent and intuitive. They are good at picking up on the emotions and moods of the people around them and adapting to changing situations.
They are also easy to train, so they tend to be well behaved and pick up new commands quickly. These little dogs look sweet, and they are sweet, and they love meeting new people and never show aggression towards strangers.
Being a small breed, French Bulldogs make great therapy dogs in situations where there is not much space. They don’t need much exercise and won’t have any problems navigating small spaces that are full of people.
Many people may think of Greyhounds as too high energy for therapy work, but it is not the case. While these lanky canines can run fast, they are actually pretty lazy and prefer lounging around.
There is nothing these dogs like more than laying back and being petted for long periods of time.
Greyhounds are highly trainable and have a docile temperament that means they can keep calm.
They love people, and their heads are not easily turned by distractions. Their short hair also means minimal shedding, so also minimal clean up following a visit from this pooch.
Pugs are another example of a small lap dog that will be happy to spend all day in the lap of a patient that needs their support.
They love being touched and receiving cuddles, and they are also highly intuitive and instinctively know when a person needs a little bit more of their love and affection.
They are playful, which makes them a great companion for kids, but they lack stamina, which means it is easy to maintain control of them.
Another breed that is ideal for more cramped environments where there is not a lot of room to run around and play, a Pug will love the attention that they get from living within a populous institutional environment.
Dachshunds are highly social dogs that love being around people and are never happier than when curled up on someone’s lap.
At the same time, they are active, fun-loving, and fearless, so they are always doing interesting things that patients can engage with. But they are intelligent and highly trainable, so easy to bring under control when needed.
A smaller breed, they can get along in places where larger dogs prove burdensome.
Their short shiny coats are also easy to keep clean and low shedding, so they don’t bring any unnecessary mess and fuss into their work environments.
They can have a tendency to be barkers, but this is an issue that can be addressed with training.
9. German Shepherd
German Shepherds are intelligent and easy to train, which is why they are often seen working as police dogs.
But their large size also makes them ideal in certain situations, for example working as the type of therapy dog that needs to lead a patient through activities. They have the energy to keep this up and are strong enough to provide physical support if needed.
Despite their large size and sometimes intimidating appearance, these dogs are gentle and friendly, and they are great with kids. There is pretty much nothing that a well-trained German Shepherd can’t do.
10. Border Collie
Border Collies are intelligent and they are people pleasers. There is nothing they like more than learning a new task and receiving praise for doing it right.
They love being around people and they will form fast bonds with anyone that they spend a lot of time with. They are used to keeping their mind on task and won’t be distracted by whoever walks into the room, whether on two- or four-legged kind.
This breed is so affectionate that they can actually get a little bit depressed if they are left alone for too long. For this reason, they thrive in therapeutic environments where they can get all the attention that they crave.
Beagles make great working animals in institutional settings as they love being around large groups of people, and they also get along especially well with children. They will quickly establish themselves as the queen bee and show their love and affection to everyone around them.
This breed is highly intelligent, but also highly independent, which means that sometimes they might choose to ignore instructions, even though they understand them. The most hard headed of Beagles probably won’t manage to qualify for a therapy dog role.
12. Yorkshire Terrier
Yorkshire Terriers make great therapy dogs because they love to be needed, and so will go above and beyond to give the people around them what they need.
They are also highly intuitive and can be particularly good at raising the alarm when something isn’t quite right. This can be the difference between life and death in certain situations.
Their small size means that these dogs are easy to handle and can get along even in cramped conditions.
While they are intelligent and trainable, this is another dog with a strong will, so some of the more stubborn members of the breed may struggle to play by the rules.
13. Cavalier King Charles
The silky smooth coat of this little pup is just begging to be stroked, and they love receiving affection and cuddles.
While these are high energy dogs, their small size and sweet disposition mean that they are easy to control, and they are highly intelligent so they will learn how they need to behave in a situation quickly.
Eager to please, these dogs love having a task to complete, and so will thrive in a working environment. They are also friendly with other pups, so they will make a great member of a therapy dog team.
Smart and with a friendly demeanor, Corgis are another small breed that will quickly learn what is required of them in a therapy situation and will thrive on the attention that they receive while fulfilling this role.
They love to be touched and petted, and they are happiest when they are the center of attention.
This is one of the breeds that also always look like they are smiling, so just seeing one can put a smile on a person’s face before their therapy even begins.
These little dogs make good therapy companions for those who struggle with mobility, as they will happily curl up in someone’s lap all day and just sleep and receive strokes and cuddles.
They bond quickly with people, and so will rapidly become the best friend that some patients truly need.
This dog is intelligent, and they are also docile and biddable, which makes them a breeze to train. Grooming their attractive coats can become a special bonding experience between patient and pooch.
It has long been known that dogs give their owners an emotional lift and can also help people maintain better mental and emotional health generally.
It is no surprise that medical professionals began to experiment with dogs as support for mental health and recuperation, leading to the profession of therapy dogs.
Being a therapy dog requires more from a pooch than just being their endearing selves.
They must be extremely well-trained to behave appropriately in the institutional circumstances, and they must have a friendly disposition, which means that they like being among people and supporting them when they have the greatest need.
While any dog can be trained to be a therapy dog, some breeds are better suited to this type of work than others.
We think that Labradors and Golden Retrievers are the best breeds for this kind of work.
They are intelligent and friendly, which is why they are often seen fulfilling a variety of service roles.
For smaller dogs, French Bulldogs and Pomeranians are great choices, and for larger breeds, look at the always reliable German Shepherd.
Many of our friends have career change Guide Dogs that are now working as Therapy Dogs. The majority of these dogs are either Labs, Goldens, and Lab/Golden Cross breeds.
We started our Lab, Stetson in a Therapy Dog reading program because he was great with children and very patient.
How about you guys?
Do you have a Therapy Dog?
If so, what breed? Tell us about your dog in the comment section below.
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Top Picks For Our Dogs
- BEST PUPPY TOY
We Like: Snuggle Puppy w/ Heart Beat & Heat Pack - Perfect for new puppies. We get all of our Service Dog pups a Snuggle Puppy.
- BEST CHEW TOY
We Like: KONG Classic - Great toy for heavy chewers like our Labrador Retrievers.
- BEST DOG TREATS
We Like: Zukes Mini Naturals - One of our favorite treats for training our service dog puppies.
- BEST FRESH DOG FOOD
We Like: The Farmer's Dog - A couple months ago we started feeding Raven fresh dog food and she loves it! Get 50% off your first order of The Farmer's Dog.
For a list of all the supplies we get for our new service dog puppies check out our New Puppy Checklist on the PuppyInTraining.com blog.