A Dog Enthusiast's Guide to Learning About Therapy Dogs
Mon, April 19, 2021

A Dog Enthusiast's Guide to Learning About Therapy Dogs



Pet therapy is a general term that comprises animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities, explained by Mayo Clinic, an American non-profit academic medical center. As a growing field, animal-assisted therapy uses dogs or other animals to help you recover from or better cope with health issues like cancer and mental health disorders.  Alternatively, animal-assisted activities provide residents of nursing homes with comfort and enjoyment.

Want a dog to help you cope with issues? Therapy dogs are your best friend as they can provide you with emotional support, helping you improve your health, said Trisha Torrey of Very Well Mind, a website that helps you manage your stress better, understand mental health conditions, and more.


Current Standards and Practices In the Therapy Dog Industry

Four of the six Group 1 organizations (67%) and 24 of the 33 of Group 2 organizations (73%) completed the survey questionnaire, said James A. Serpell and colleagues of Frontiers In Veterinary Science, a global peer-reviewed, open-access journal. With regard to the percentage of new applicants who failed to pass the organization’s screening process and register successfully in 2017, 71% of Group 2 organizations reported a failure rate of 10% or less, with six organizations (25%) saying that all applicants were successful. Only 11 (46%) organizations said that the failure rate was only between one and 10%.

The failure rates in Group 1 organizations were from 0 to 30%. Moreover, 100% of Group 1 organizations had formal guidelines on dog requirements required in-person behavioral evaluations, required dogs to be at least one year of age, and did not require an AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certification, or spaying/neutering. Meanwhile, 96% of Group 2 organizations said they have formal, written guidelines to successfully register a dog. For example, 92% required a formal in-person behavioral evaluation of the dog prior to certification whereas 83% required the dog to be at least one year of age to participate in visits. However, Group 2 organizations were less likely to agree on the following: re-evaluation of behavior (58% of those who agreed), to have an AKC CGC certification (38%), and to have lived in their current home for at least six months (46%).

Among Group 2 organizations, 96% required dogs to be leashed at all times during visits while 92% prohibited the use of dogs exhibiting signs of poor health. 88% required dogs to receive health clearance from a veterinarian and to mandate a regular re-evaluation by a veterinarian. 96% of the 24 Group 2 organizations offered training and/or information on safeguarding canine welfare. 88% also provided training and/or information on canine body language. 75% of Group 2 organizations said they have formal policies on acceptable/unacceptable training methods for use with therapy dogs. When asked to specify which training methods were acceptable or unacceptable, they cited disallowing the use of coercive training equipment like choke collars (60%). 60% said they required the use of positive reinforcement training and 32% stipulated both.  



All Group 1 organizations required the handler to avoid visits if they showed symptoms of communicable disease (ex: cough). However, only 33% required immunizations recommended for healthcare workers, as well as requiring handlers to be 18-years-old and to receive criminal background checks and child abuse history clearance. For Group 2 organizations, 92% discouraged volunteer handlers from making visits when they show symptoms of communicable disease. Only 50% recommended handlers to receive appropriate immunization or avoid visits if other members of their household display symptoms of communicable disease.

25% of Group 2 organizations recommended routine health screening of handlers by physicians. 54% required criminal background checks whereas 42% required handlers to undergo child abuse history clearance. Only 58% required therapy dog handlers to be at least 18 years.


What Is a Therapy Dog?

Also known as “comfort dogs,” they help improve your mental health by giving you attention and comfort. Therapy dogs are different from service dogs, as the latter are trained to perform specific tasks for their owners and to help them cope with disabilities. Therapy dogs live at home, but they can visit retirement or nursing homes, schools, hospitals, and hospice homes. They are trained to be gentle and friendly. Therapy dogs are also trained to accept hugging and petting from strangers. Therapy dogs are also known for their patience, especially when kids tug at their fur or when adults want the canines to sit on their laps.



How Do Canines Become Therapy Dogs?

Therapy dogs must be assessed to make sure that they have a “calm, unexcitable temperament,” stated Advantage Petcare, a website that provides information on cat and dog health. Therapy dogs must also not be easily startled or scared by strange places or noisy children. Breeds that make excellent therapy dogs are Labradors (as they have a gentle nature), Golden Retrievers, Collies, German Shepherds, beagles, greyhounds, and Pomeranians. While a dog’s good demeanor may be attributed to its breed, albeit partially, it is mostly dependent on how it is raised and how evenly the dog’s temperament develops.

Most therapy dog organizations require canines to be well-groomed and in good health and have undergone regular health and wellness checkups, said Jen Karetnick of the American Kennel Club, a recognized and trusted expert in breed, health and training information for dogs.


How Do I Get My Own Therapy Dog or Train My Dog to be One?

Try to research for therapy dogs online. Be sure to include the name of your city or town in your online research. This way, you will be able to find individuals and organizations near your area. If you want to train your canine to be a therapy dog or have it visit nursing homes and other facilities, you can call or send an email to a facility you have in mind to inquire about its procedures.

Linda Keehn, CPDT-KA, therapy dog trainer, evaluator, and handler, and owner of Positive Canine Training and Services in New York. recommended observing your dog if it enjoys interacting with new people in different situations. She added, “Does it seek out attention from people and have a calm demeanor? It could be the nicest dog in your living room, but not elsewhere.” Be sure to watch your pet’s behavior carefully before calling your preferred facility.


If you want to have your own therapy dog, be sure that the dog is healthy and free from diseases. If you want your pet to be trained as a therapy dog, ensure that it can easily adapt to new situations and be trained in basic obedience.