What Is A Therapy Dog And What Do They Do?

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What Is A Therapy Dog? - Yellow Lab lying in the grass staring back at the camera.
What Is A Therapy Dog?

Therapy dogs are dogs that work as volunteers, usually with their owners, to provide affection, comfort, and support to vulnerable people who need it.

They will usually work within institutions such as in hospitals, retirement homes, hospices, or other kinds of supportive care units, though their services can be called upon in a variety of circumstances.

They do not provide any kind of physical support like guide dogs do, or specific health support such as diabetes detection dogs, but they are trained to interact with people in a way that simply makes them feel better through companionship and affection.

As such, any dog can be trained and certified to work as a therapy dog as long as they have the right temperament.

In today’s article, we will go into the details of what exactly a therapy dog is and what they do.

We will also look at what characteristics and temperament your dog needs to become a therapy dog, as well as how to train and certify your pup, and then get them working to help people.

Generally speaking, the dogs that work as therapy dogs and their owners are volunteers, with a desire to help people through canine companionship.

If you are considering enlisting your dog as a therapy dog, bear in mind that there is minimal or no financial gain and that it will require a time commitment. But, overall, the experience can be very fulfilling for both pup and handler.

Contents & Quick Navigation

The Benefits Of Dog Ownership

Studies have clearly shown the benefits of owning a dog, and other pets. Pet owners tend to have greater self-esteem, be more physically fit, are less lonely, more conscientious, are more socially outgoing, and have healthier relationships.

Tests have shown that interacting with friendly animals lowers blood pressure, slows the heart rate, and positively regulates the stress-modulating hormones cortisol and dopamine. Cortisol also controls blood sugar and metabolism, which means a healthier body as well.

Interacting with animals also stimulates the production of oxytocin, which feeds feelings of empathy, which in turn helps people build better social relationships. In a similar way, it can alleviate feelings of social isolation and related depression.

These socializing benefits have been shown to extend to individuals with social functioning issues such as autism.

With so many benefits, it is no surprise that many well-being professionals advocate for the proactive use of dogs to help the most vulnerable, who could use the kind of emotional support offered by dogs the most.

Therapy dogs have been used for around 100 years, and have been a mainstream therapy tool since the 1970s.

What Exactly Do Therapy Dogs Do?

Therapy dogs are dogs that have been specifically trained to provide affection and comfort to people who need it. OK, but what does that mean in practice?

Most therapy dogs are classified as therapeutic visitation dogs that live at home with their owners.

They will generally be registered with an agency, which will arrange for the dog and their owner to voluntarily visit specific locations and spend time with the people there.

These are usually places where people might feel isolated, vulnerable, or be dealing with specific challenges. They include hospitals, nursing homes, special schools, hospices, disaster recovery areas, and so forth.

The dogs generally do not need to perform any specific tasks, but rather simply pass time with people, sitting with them through difficult moments, letting them pet them, and just being there.

Just passing time with therapy dogs in these types of settings and scenarios have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression among patients.

The dogs boost the moods of the people they engage with. The presence of therapy dogs has also been demonstrated to make patients more willing to participate in their own recovery process and feel more comfortable in their environment.

There are also animal-assisted therapy dogs, which are more like “full-time” therapy dogs that live within an organization. These animals are sometimes trained to complete other specific functions such as helping patients complete daily tasks.

Therapy dogs are very different from service dogs such as guide dogs, psychiatric support dogs, or diabetes detection dogs, which are trained to complete very specific tasks in order to support an individual and their needs. 

They also do not have the same rights as service dogs, which have the right of access to public spaces, as they need to accompany their humans at all times. Therapy dogs will only be granted access to the place where they are working.

Therapy dogs are closely related to emotional support dogs, which are similarly intended to provide companionship and emotional support to people who need it. But emotional support dogs are linked to a single individual. You can learn more about how to train an emotional support dogs here.

The Characteristics Of A Good Therapy Dog

While any dog can, in theory, become a therapy dog, there are a few key characteristics that all therapy dogs require, so some breeds will be more suited to the role than others.

The key characteristics required to be a therapy dog include:

Here are more details on each of the above therapy dog characteristics:

Intelligent

Dogs working as therapy dogs need to be able to read the people and the situations around them.

They need to know when it is time to play and when it is time to be near but calm, often on their own without having anyone directing their behavior.

Intelligent dogs are better at reading situations and making independent judgments, which makes them better suited to the role of a therapy dog.

Intelligent dogs are also, in most cases, easier to train, so they will tend to be more obedient and pick up new commands they may require in the context of therapy work more quickly.

Obedient

Therapy dogs need to be extremely well-trained and quick to respond to direction. While they might be trained to complete certain specific activities, even more important than this is that they are easy to control.

The kinds of institutions in which they work are often places where the unexpected happens. 

Therapists and patients should be able to call the dog to stop and sit and have them respond immediately, even when there is chaos erupting around them.

The best therapy dogs will respond quickly and consistently to both verbal and visual commands.

Focused

Therapy dogs need to be able to focus on a specific individual or task. For example, they need to be able to give someone with social anxiety their undivided attention, no matter what is happening in the area.

Someone suffering from social nervousness won’t feel better if their canine companion reacts to every person that enters the room.

Again, because institutions can sometimes be unpredictable spaces, it is important that therapy dogs have the ability to focus on an individual, even if another dog walks right by them, or another patient is passing through during a challenging moment.

Calm

While there is nothing to say that there won’t be time to play while working, therapy dogs can’t be jumping up on every new person who enters the room.

Even small dogs jumping up can make some people very uncomfortable.

The dogs will sometimes be required to sit patiently with someone for extended periods of time without getting restless. So they will need to be able to control their urge to get up and explore.

Sociable

Therapy dogs are required to quickly form bonds with the new people they meet. Having a highly sociable personality helps with this significantly. 

Therapy dogs will also be around lots of people, and possibly other animals, all the time when they are working.

This needs to be a situation that they are comfortable with. Any dog that gets anxious around other animals, children, or crowds is not suited to the work of a therapy dog.

Happy To Be Touched

In therapy situations, patients will want to touch dogs, and this provides an important connection between the dog and the individual, and the physical contact can provide emotion and stress release. 

But not all dogs like to be touched. Some dogs also have certain body parts that will trigger them if touched. The new people interacting with the dog may not always know this from the outset. Patients need to be able to touch therapy dogs without fear of being nipped if they accidentally touch the wrong place.

Gentle

There are many larger dog breeds that are incredibly friendly and would never intentionally hurt a fly. But if they are big and strong, and also don’t have a good awareness of their own strength, accidents can happen.

If these dogs accidentally knock into a small child or an elderly person, they could hurt them. That doesn’t mean big dogs aren’t suited to the role, but they need to know their own strength and know how to be careful.

We actually know a group of therapy dogs that are mainly composed of Newfoundlands. We see them every year at the Special Olympics offering therapy to the athletes.

It also helps if they have a soft mouth, which means they can pick things up without damaging them. This can be useful if they are fetching things, and also means they are safer when it does come to a little bit of welcome rough play.

Clean

Many of the environments in which therapy dogs will work, such as hospitals and nursing homes, need to be kept very clean, so they need dogs that won’t bring too much additional dirt into the space. 

Low-shedding and low-drooling dogs are always the best choice, and all dogs should be immaculately groomed before going into work, to minimize the amount of hair and other debris they will leave behind while on the job.

Best Dog Breeds

If you are interested in learning which dog breeds are best suited to the role of therapy dogs, check out our list of the 15 best dog breeds for therapy dogs. It should be no surprise to see intelligent and friendly Labradors and Golden Retrievers on this list.

Getting Your Dog Certified As A Therapy Dog

There is more than one body that registers therapy dogs in the United States. 

A comprehensive list of certifying organizations can be found on the American Kennel Club website. They include:

  • Alliance of Therapy Dogs
  • Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs
  • Love on a Leash
  • Pet Partners
  • Therapy Dogs Incorporated
  • Therapy Dogs International

To decide which agency you should be registering your dog with, speak to the people with whom you intend to volunteer. They will have a preferred certifying agency and can provide you with all the contact details.

You may be speaking directly to a vulnerable care organization about volunteering, but more likely you will be speaking to a therapy dog group that brokers relationships between therapy dogs and organizations seeking their services.

A comprehensive list of therapy dog groups can again be found on the American Kennel Club website. This is often the best way to volunteer your pup as a therapy dog, as they will be covered by the organization’s insurance. Otherwise, you may need your own.

PRO TIP: If you’re looking to volunteer somewhere specific, say for instance the Children’s Hospital. It’s a good idea to find out which therapy dog organization works with the Children’s Hospital then look into certifying your dog with that therapy dog group.

When we began researching therapy dog programs for our black Lab, Stetson we found one common prerequisite among most of the organizations was to pass your Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test.

The testing to certify your dog will be slightly different depending on which agency you choose to register with. But, in general, testing will start with an observer or tester spending time with you and your dog. They will be looking out for things such as:

  • How well your dog listens to you and responds to commands
  • How your dog reacts to strangers and if they allow them to touch or handle them
  • If your dog is calm during petting
  • How your dog reacts to other dogs
  • If your dog walks on the leash without pulling
  • If your dog jumps up at the people it interacts with
  • How your dog reacts to strange noises, smells, and other distractions

If successful in this stage of the testing, you and your dog will be taken on an observed visit to an institution like one where your dog might be volunteering in the future.

Your dog will be observed for the same behaviors, but this time in a more realistic situation.

The tester will approve your dog for registration, recommend further training that might help your dog prepare for therapy dog work, or let you know that your dog doesn’t have quite the right temperament to work in these kinds of situations.

Remember, it will not only be your dog that is being observed, but you as well. You will need to accompany your dog when they are working, and your behavior and demeanor will also need to be appropriate for the environment. You and your dog will be working together as a team so you are both being tested and observed.

If you are interested in training your dog as a therapy dog there are a number of organizations that provide training programs, and there will be personal trainers who also specialize in this type of work.

FAQs

What Is The Role Of A Therapy Dog?

Therapy dogs are dogs that are certified as having the right temperament and training to spend time with vulnerable people, usually inside institutions such as hospitals and hospices.

They provide companionship and emotional support that has been proven to improve patients’ mental and emotional health and help them toward a faster recovery, or just improve their quality of life by providing much-needed companionship.

How Does A Dog Become A Therapy Dog?

To work as a therapy dog in an institution such as a hospital or school, the pup must be certified as a therapy dog. There are a number of different bodies that provide this certification.

Speak to the organization with which you intend to volunteer and ask them for their preferred certifying body.

The certification process will involve passing time with an observer/tester, first in your local area and then on a supervised visit to the type of institution where your dog would be working.

The observer/tester will watch how your dog interacts with people and other animals, how they respond to new situations, how quickly and consistently they respond to commands, how well they walk on a loose leash, and similar behaviors.

If the observer/tester is happy with the behavior and temperament of your dog, you will then be able to register them with that agency.

Is A Therapy Dog A Service Dog?

Therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs. Service dogs have specific training to meet the needs of a specific individual.

For example, guide dogs are trained to work with the visually impaired; diabetic detection dogs are trained to scent dangerous drops in blood sugar; and epilepsy support dogs are trained to help someone during a seizure and maybe seek help.

Because of the type of work they do, service dogs are subject to many exemptions. They are allowed in public spaces, including restaurants; they are allowed on airplanes; they must be allowed into accommodations even if it is designated “no pets,” and so forth.

None of these exemptions apply to therapy dogs. Therapy dogs are simply allowed access to the institution in which they are working.

What Breeds Are Therapy Dogs?

Any breed can work as a therapy dog, as long as they have the right temperament. They need to be friendly, social, well-behaved, and intelligent.

Some breeds are more suited to this than others. Small breeds are often a good choice, such as Pomeranians and pugs, as they are lap dogs that love attention, and they are small enough that people generally feel safe and comfortable around them rather than threatened.

When it comes to larger breeds, intelligent and friendly Labradors and golden retrievers are among the best choices, as they are affectionate and easy to train.

Dogs such as German shepherds are in fact intelligent and friendly and have all the qualities of a good therapy dog. But you won’t often see them working in that capacity, as many people are scared of them due to their large size and robust facial structure. 

So while German shepherds are great service dogs or emotional support dogs, working with individuals who know them, they are less often seen as therapy dogs where they are constantly engaging with new people and are more likely to come into contact with someone who is fearful of them.

How Can I Certify My Dog As A Therapy Dog Online?

There is no simple online process for registering your dog as a therapy dog, as all certifications will require a visit from an observer or tester who can assess the temperament and training of your dog.

The best thing to do is find a certifying organization that has a local branch, so that you can easily engage with them to organize the required observation and testing.

The Verdict

Dogs have an amazing ability to provide unconditional love and emotional support. Anyone who owns a dog probably feels the benefit of this in their lives.

Knowing what it has given you, you might wish to help others experience the same, especially the people who are most vulnerable and therefore need that kind of support the most.

This is the attraction of volunteering with your dog as a therapy dog. You can take your pup into institutions such as hospitals, care homes, and hospices and let them spend time with the people there, sharing a little bit of the love that they give you, with them.

Not every dog is suited to be a therapy dog. They need a friendly and calm temperament, to be highly obedient and responsive, and to enjoy the company of new people.

For this reason, dogs do need to be registered as therapy dogs before they can volunteer in this capacity.

There are lots of different agencies with which you can register your pup. Ask the organization with which you plan to volunteer which one they prefer.

Therapy dogs are volunteers, so there is no financial reward for the time that you and your pup put in. But many people find that helping others in this way is more than reward enough.

Do you have any experience working with therapy dogs?

Share your thoughts and tips with the community in the comments section below.

What Is A Therapy Dog? Yellow Labrador Retriever lying in the grass staring into the camera.
What Is A Therapy Dog?

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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.

What Is A Therapy Dog And What Do They Do? was last modified: November 2nd, 2020 by LTHQ



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