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Dog owners know all about the fulfillment, comfort, and love that dogs can provide. So it is no surprise to us when therapists tell us that dogs can make a huge difference in the lives and recovery of vulnerable people, by reducing stress, offering companionship, and helping them feel safe.
If you have been thinking that you would like to share the love and affection that you get from your dog with those who need it the most, you can. You can train them and register them to volunteer as a therapy dog.
While this is a wonderful thing to do, it is not necessarily an easy thing to do. Not all dogs are well-suited to the role, and any dog that does take on the work needs to have excellent training, immaculate social skills, and be naturally intelligent and empathetic.
But, if you think your dog is up to the task, in this article we will go through everything you need to know about training your dog to be a therapy dog.
What Is A Therapy Dog?
Therapy dogs are dogs that are trained to provide comfort, affection, and support to vulnerable people.
There are a variety of different classifications of therapy dogs, but the most common are therapeutic visitation dogs. These dogs live at home with their owners but will be registered with an agency as a therapy dog. They will volunteer to visit specific locations to spend time with vulnerable people, accompanied by their owner.
Volunteering most often occurs in places such as hospitals, nursing homes, special schools, hospices, disaster recovery areas, and so forth.
These types of therapy dogs are unlikely to be trained to complete specific tasks. Rather, they are trained to be calm and friendly, attentive to the person they are with, and simply pass time with humans in a supportive way.
Another classification of therapy dog is an animal-assisted therapy dog These are more like full-time therapy dogs and will probably live within the organization they are supporting, rather than at home with a separate owner.
These therapy dogs are more likely to be trained to complete specific tasks. These will be tasks that assist patients in completing daily routines or recovery and therapy activities.
Nevertheless, therapy dogs are not considered in the same classification as guide dogs, psychiatric support dogs, or diabetes detection dogs, which have much more specific training in how to help and support a specific individual.
You can learn more about therapy dogs and what exactly they do here.
How To Train A Therapy Dog
If you want to train your dog to work as a therapy dog, there are a number of steps involved.
- Assess your dog and determine if they have the right characteristics to work as a therapy dog.
- Provide training, either delivering it yourself or working with a therapy dog training organization.
- Certify your dog with a therapy dog certification agency.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps.
Assess Your Dog
First and foremost, you need to assess whether your dog has the right characteristics to be a therapy dog.
These considerations are mostly about temperament, but there are also some physical considerations. For example, excessive drooling and shedding can make working difficult, especially in places such as hospitals that have sanitary requirements.
Whether your dog looks friendly is also a factor. While your Rottweiler might be the nicest dog on earth, many people have fears of certain dog breeds, which means that they do not make good therapy dogs through no fault of their own.
But the main characteristics of your dog to consider relate to the temperament. The main qualities to assess in your dog are:
- Intelligence – Therapy dogs need to be able to read people and situations so they can assess what is required of them without necessarily being told. Intelligent dogs tend to be better at making independent assessments.
- Obedience – Therapy dogs need to be able to quickly and accurately respond to directions, regardless of who they are coming from and even when there may be significant distractions in the space.
- Focus – A therapy dog may be asked to deal with one patient, even when there are many people and a lot of activity in the room. They need to be able to maintain their focus on the task at hand.
- Calmness – Therapy dogs should never jump up on people, or start yapping when another animal or human enters the room.
- Sociable – Therapy dogs will be in situations where they encounter a lot of new people and animals, and they will need to be able to get along with and form bonds with them relatively quickly.
- Comfort with being touched – Physical contact is one of the essential roles of therapy dogs. They need to be comfortable being touched everywhere and not be the type to nip at someone’s hand if they touch them somewhere they don’t like.
- Gentleness – This is especially important with larger breeds. They need to know their own strength and not be clumsy, to minimize the likelihood of accidentally knocking over or hurting someone.
The final thing to consider is the age of your dog. It will be easier to train a pup with the new skills they need to be a therapy dog, rather than trying to instill new requirements in an old dog. But, that said, it is not true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Any dog can be a therapy dog, but some breeds are generally better suited to the role than others. You can find a list of the dog breeds that make the best therapy dogs here.
Once you have assessed whether your dog has the right temperament to be a therapy dog, you must then train your dog. You can do this on your own or with the assistance of a trainer.
The American Kennel Club provides a comprehensive list of therapy dog organizations, many of which also provide training. They will also be able to direct you toward appropriate training in your local area. See the complete list here.
When training your dog, you should focus on the skills they need to pass the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen Test. Many certifying organizations will actually require that your dog has already passed this test before considering them for therapy dog certification.
The main parts of the test include:
- How your dog engages with a friendly stranger
- Whether they allow strangers to touch them and otherwise check them
- How they respond to other dogs
- Their ability to walk on a leash without pulling
- Their ability to maintain their behavior when walking through a crowd
- Their ability to follow basic commands
In addition to the essential commands that all dogs should know, the most important additional commands that therapy dogs will need to understand are:
- Leave It – Instructs the dog not to touch, pick up, or sniff a particular object they may have noticed. There will be many things in therapy spaces that your dog should not be touching.
- Paws Up – Place two paws on an object or surface, lightly and one at a time. This is used, for example, to get your dog to put their hands up on a bed so that a patient can reach them more easily.
- Snorkel – Similarly, this instructs your dog to place their head on a bed or by a person’s hand so they can more easily touch them.
- Fuss – This is an advanced version of heel (actually the German command for heel), which calls the dog to heel very close to the handler and to watch them carefully for further instructions.
So, the training that your dog needs to receive is not complex. It is mainly socialization, obedience, and focus. The special skills they need are very limited.
They need to know how to behave around other animals and humans. They should get along with everyone, but also not get overly excited when a potential new friend walks into the room. In short, therapy dogs should make terrible guard dogs.
To be a therapy dog, they need a bit of extra training when it comes to socialization. For example, some dogs don’t like their bellies rubbed, and they might give a little nip to let someone know they don’t like that. While that is fine for a happy and sociable dog, it is not something that you would want to see a therapy dog do.
Vulnerable people often aren’t going to know where a dog does and does not like to be touched, and even an innocent nip from your dog might cause significant distress.
Obedience is key, as your dog must be under control at all times while within the therapy space. They are by definition spaces where the unexpected might happen, so you might need to call your dog to heel at a moment’s notice from the other side of a busy room.
For this reason, it can be a good idea to teach your dog hand signals as well as verbal commands, so that you have a better chance of engaging with them in any situation.
In addition, your dog may need to take instructions from people other than you, such as staff in the space or even the vulnerable individuals themselves. A patient might decide that they would like the dog to get down off their bed and will want to give them that command.
It can take an extra level of training to ensure that your dog consistently responds to the command and doesn’t just respond when it is you giving the command.
Working dogs often need to be able to focus on the job at hand, whether that be guiding someone across a street, sniffing out a scent, or sitting serenely with someone. They should not be distracted from the task at hand by the smell of food, another dog to play with entering the room, or even you moving from one location to another.
Therapy dogs need a very limited number of special skills, and some may well be learned after they are certified, as part of preparing them to work for a specific institution.
For example, specific institutions may have places that the dog can and cannot go. They may also use specific commands within their organization. For example, if they have hospital beds, they may have specific commands they use for paws up or snorkle.
So here, the main thing is to ensure that your dog has the ability to learn new skills and adapt quickly.
Certify Your Dog
Once you are satisfied that your dog is appropriately trained, you will need to arrange for them to be assessed and certified.
There are a number of different agencies within the United States that test and certify dogs. It can be a good idea to start by speaking to the organization or agency with which you wish to volunteer, and ask them which of the various certifying agencies they suggest.
The main organizations with which you can certify your dog are:
- Alliance of Therapy Dogs
- Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs
- Love on a Leash
- Pet Partners
- Therapy Dogs International
You can find a complete list of registering organizations on the Kennel Club website.
How exactly testing will take place depends on the registering agency that you work with. But, generally speaking, an observer will spend time with you and your dog and will look out for similar characteristics as were required for the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test, such as how your dog responds to strangers and other dogs, how your dog is during petting, and how they react to noises, smells, and other distractions.
If they do well on the observation test, you and your dog will be taken on a test visit to an institution like the one with which you want to volunteer, to see how they behave within that environment.
After this, they will recommend your dog for certification or further training and development work.
How Do I Train My Dog To Be A Therapy Dog?
If you would like to train your dog to be a therapy dog, they need excellent social skills, immaculate obedience training, and the ability to focus even in unfamiliar or stressful situations.
You can provide this training yourself, or work with a therapy dog organization to deliver the training.
As a good starting point, you can prepare your dog for the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen Test. Many therapy dog certifying organizations require this as a prerequisite before they will consider certifying your dog.
How Long Does It Take To Train A Dog To Be A Therapy Dog?
How long it will take to train a dog as a therapy dog depends very much on the dog, their temperament and intelligence, and their age. Younger dogs tend to be easier to train, but can be too energetic and lack focus. While an older dog have some bad habits, a well-trained older dog is likely to already have a lot of the skills they need.
How Can I Certify My Dog As A Therapy Dog?
There are a number of different agencies that certify dogs as therapy dogs, and they all have slightly different requirements. The best place to start is by speaking with the organization with which you intend to volunteer. They can point you in the direction of their preferred certifying organization, which can then provide specific details.
What Is The Best Age To Start Training A Therapy Dog?
It is best to start training therapy dogs when they are puppies, instilling them with the skills they need as part of their other essential training (such as house training). However, bear in mind that the majority of certifying agencies will not certify a dog until they are at least one year old.
Is A Therapy Dog The Same As A Service Dog?
No, therapy dogs are very different from service dogs. Service dogs are trained to complete specific tasks to help an individual with a specific disability. Their training will be related to the specific needs of that individual.
Therapy dogs, on the other hand, are trained to be friendly and sociable around people in general in order to give different groups of vulnerable people love and support.
It can be highly rewarding for both you and your dog to spend time with people who need a little love and support. The kind of unconditional and uncomplicated love and affection that dogs give can make a huge difference in the lives of vulnerable people.
But, if you want to do this kind of work, it is more complicated than just saying, hey, I have a nice dog and we’d love to spend some time with people.
You need a dog with the right kind of physical attributes, the right social temperament, and who can focus and follow commands in the unfamiliar and often unpredictable environments in which they are invited to work.
But if you think that your dog is up to the challenge, there are few experiences more rewarding.
Do you have any experience working with or training therapy dogs?
Share your wisdom with the community in the comments section below.
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