Have you ever thought that your dog might make a good therapy dog? Maybe you know of a nursing home where a visit from your dog would infuse the residents' lives with a much-needed dose of joy, but you're not sure how to make it happen or even where to start. If you've ever wondered what steps are necessary to register a therapy dog, or what's involved in training a therapy dog, keep reading.
What Therapy Dogs Do
Therapy dogs, along with their handlers, visit people in places, such as schools, nursing homes and hospitals to help improve the lives of people in difficult situations. When you register a therapy dog, he might cheer up a terminally ill patient or be a friend to a lonely senior. Therapy dogs help kids suffering from anxiety or depression by providing a calming influence. A therapy dog's main job is simply to provide companionship, entertainment and love to those who are struggling with difficult circumstances.
Therapy Dog vs. Service Dog
It's important to distinguish between a therapy dog and a service dog. Service dogs live with the people they're trained to serve and provide highly specialized services, such as guiding the blind or providing assistance to the physically disabled. Service dogs receive rigorous training in order to perform their duties effectively, and they are legally permitted to go wherever their human companions go, including places like restaurants and on airplanes. While therapy dogs enjoy special access to facilities when they're invited to visit, they don't have unrestricted access the way service dogs do.
Training a Therapy Dog
Because a therapy dog's job is simply to be a dog for those in need, they don't have to undergo a lot of specialized training. They do, however, need to be proficient in basic obedience skills and be highly socialized and able to get along well with strangers. Some therapy dog organizations may require their canine students to pass the Good Citizen test provided by the AKC. Therapy dogs may also need to undergo desensitization training so that they won't become rattled in situations involving boisterous children or noisy hospital machines.
Some therapy dog registration organizations provide training courses for those who need them, but most do not. You may need to take it upon yourself to either train your dog or enroll him in independent training courses. These are the courses your dog will likely need to take in preparation for becoming a therapy dog:
- Basic and intermediate obedience training.
- Canine Good Citizen training.
- Desensitization training, which includes exposure to strange situations and loud noises, as well as acclimation to hospitals and other specialized environments.
Check with the organization with which you plan to register your dog to find out the exact requirements. They may be able to assist you with finding classes or a therapy dog training specialist in your community.
Additional Therapy Dog Requirements
Dogs of any breed, shape, or size can become therapy dogs. In order to be considered for therapy dog registration, a dog should be at least one year of age. He also needs to be friendly, confident, and well-mannered and not aggressive, anxious, fearful, or hyperactive. You must also be able to demonstrate that either you or the person who will accompany your dog on visitations are able to work well with the dog.
Typically, therapy dog organizations also have health requirements that your dog must meet. For example, Therapy Dogs International (TDI) lists the following health requirements:
- Your dog needs to have had an annual health check performed by your veterinarian within the past 12 months.
- He must be current on his rabies vaccination, and it must have been administered by a vet.
- He must have received all of his core vaccinations, including for distemper, parvo, and hepatitis.
- He must have received a stool exam within the past 12 months, with negative results.
- He must also have tested negative for heartworm within the past year, or be on continuous heartworm prevention medication.
How to Register a Therapy Dog
Before you can volunteer your dog as a therapy dog, you first need to register with a therapy dog organization, that can then match you to facilities where you and your dog can volunteer. Check your local listings for a therapy dog registration organization in your area, or visit the American Kennel Club (AKC) for a list of AKC-approved therapy dog organizations.
Once you're confident your dog meets all the qualifications to become a therapy dog, both you (or the person who will be volunteering alongside your pup) and your dog will need to undergo evaluation by the organization. The evaluation usually takes place in person with a group of other potential volunteer teams, and is typically done in a hospital or nursing home environment. Tests that your dog will undergo might include:
- Meeting and greeting new people
- Sit/stay and down/stay in a group situation
- Coming when called
- Visiting with a patient
- Reactions to children and unusual situations
- The leave-it command
- Meeting another dog
- Entering the facility
Keep in mind that your dog isn't the only one that will be evaluated. The evaluator will also be watching closely to see how you interact with your dog, as well as how well you and your dog get along and work together as a team. If the evaluator is satisfied with both your and your dog's performance, you will both be allowed to register as a therapy dog team.
If a therapy dog organization doesn't provide testing in your area, some organizations, including TDI, make provisions for limited registration based on long-distance evaluation. To be considered, you will need to provide graduation certificates for basic and intermediate obedience courses along with a letter from the obedience school attesting to your dog's temperament. You will also need to provide a letter of recommendation from your veterinarian, as well as a letter from the facility you wish to visit, written on the facility's letterhead, stating that you and your dog are welcome to visit.
It's quite a process to train and register a therapy dog, but it can be a rewarding experience for you and your pup, not to mention for those who will benefit from your dog's companionship.
Jean Marie Bauhaus
Jean Marie Bauhaus is fiction author and freelance writer and editor living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She writes frequently about pets and pet health in her home office, where she is assisted by a lapful of furbabies.