If you have a good citizen dog who is friendly, well-behaved, and loves people, it might occur to you that your dog could be a good therapy dog.
Therapy dogs provide relief and comfort to people in a variety of situations, such as people recuperating in hospitals, those who are recovering from a natural disaster, or those who are grieving or lonely and living in nursing homes. The unconditional affection a dog offers can help heal broken hearts, help people mend faster from medical issues, or just make them feel better when they're doing a difficult job, such as that of a first responder.
Not all dogs will make good therapy dogs. Of course, they must naturally like people and be comfortable in a variety of situations, but there is more to it. In fact, there is specific training and there are obedience tests, called the Canine Good Citizen Test or the Pet Partners Exam, that prove a dog is ready to become a therapy dog.
What is a therapy dog?
There is a difference between service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs. Many times, people will use these words interchangeably, but there are big differences between these three descriptions. Most businesses have a sign saying something to the effect of, "No pets allowed, but service dogs are welcome." The biggest issue is related to Americans with Disabilities Act protection for what dogs are allowed to do.
From a legal standpoint, a service dog must be individually trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability and those tasks must be directly related to the disability in question. That means, for instance, if a person is legally blind, they have a service dog who is trained to guide them as they walk, for instance. Likewise, a person with diabetes may have a service dog who is trained to alert her when her blood sugar reaches high or low levels.
The ADA makes allowances for service animals to enter buildings and go other places where animals are normally not allowed, but not emotional support animals or therapy dogs. According to the ADA, the distinction is related to the service dogs being trained to perform specific tasks. Service dogs are legally protected and allowed to accompany their human partner anywhere the human is allowed to go. The ADA does not require that the owner of the service dog provide any proof of the dog's service training or identify their training with any type of clothing, although many people do have their service dogs wearing vests to identify them as service animals.
Businesses are only allowed to ask two questions of the owner of a service dog: 1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?, and 2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Therapy dogs do receive training, but it is much more general and geared toward good behavior than a service dog's training. Therapy dogs generally accompany their owner to visit people in specific settings, such as schools, hospitals, and nursing homes to provide comfort to people in need. Therapy dogs provide the benefits of spending time with animals to people who can't have animals around for whatever reason. Spending time with animals, especially dogs, has been shown to decrease stress levels and blood pressure and increase overall mental health.
Emotional support animals
Many people believe that their emotional support animals are as necessary to them as a service dog would be to a person who has epilepsy, for instance, but the law doesn't see them as the same. An emotional support animal (ESA), helps people just by their mere presence. Someone who has an ESA takes comfort simply from being near the animal, holding them, petting them, talking to them, etc. An emotional support animal is not trained to perform a specific mental health or physical health task.
The ADA does not cover ESAs, which means that ESAs would not be permitted on trains, airplanes, in restaurants, grocery stores, workplaces, or any other places where animals would not normally be permitted. ESAs don't have to be dogs . . . they can be any animal that provides comfort. Falsely claiming that your dog is a service animal is a criminal misdemeanor and punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to six months in prison.
ESAs do not qualify as ADA service animals, but, if you have a letter from a medical professional explaining that, in their professional opinion, you need that animal around, you can get some legal protections. While your ESA still can't go in most public places where animals aren't allowed, they can live with you in pet-free apartments and fly with you on airplanes. American Airlines explains that emotional support animals may fly in the cabin at no charge if they meet the requirements of assisting individuals with emotional, psychiatric, or cognitive disabilities, and the airline has advance notice of the animal flying and approves it.
Training a therapy dog
There's more to training a therapy dog than being able to teach your dog basic obedience. Olivia Healy, MA, CPDT-KA, behavior and Fear Free Certified dog trainer at Clickstart Dog Training Academy, told Cuteness that the process of training a therapy dog sometimes takes years.
"The first things we look for when evaluating animals to be therapy animals is that they're not just tolerant of people, but they're really, really, excited to meet new people," Healy said. "We look for very friendly, outgoing dogs who solicit attention from strangers."
You know the type of dog: the ones that light up and whose tails won't stop wagging as soon as someone new walks by. Some dogs naturally have this personality, while other dogs may get agitated or seem indifferent when someone new walks by. A dog that doesn't actively want a lot of attention, cuddles, and petting not only isn't going to be a good therapy dog, but they probably won't enjoy the work.
Healy said t is quite common for pet parents to bring their dog in thinking that they would make a good therapy dog, but when training starts, it becomes clear that they really don't enjoy a lot of attention from strangers all that much.
"That's not a bad thing, but it means that their dog probably wouldn't be a good therapy dog," Healy told us.
Puppy therapy dog socialization
Healy looks for dogs who have their obedience and listening skills dialed in, and are manageable enough to not trip over tubes going to and from an oxygen tank, for instance, or knock small children over in a group reading at a library. For pet parents thinking about training their puppy to be a good therapy dog, Healy recommends they focus on socialization.
"If you are getting a puppy, work to be sure that they're totally comfortable in whatever situation you're planning on having them do therapy work in," Healy said. "So if you want to go to the hospital or work with people with disabilities, they need to be super comfortable with mobility equipment, loud noises, and all different kinds of people talking and moving around."
The Canine Good Citizen test
The American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen test is a good first step for anyone who's interested in improving their dog's general behavior. The Canine Good Citizen test consists of 10 skills. It is open to all dogs, purebred and mixed breed, and it focuses on teaching basic obedience and good manners. While the Canine Good Citizen test isn't a requirement to become a therapy dog, it does teach and strengthen basic obedience skills and provides a good foundation for more training.
Therapy dog certification
There are a few organizations that will certify dogs to become therapy animals. Olivia Healy's company, the aforementioned Clickstart Dog Training Academy, helps dogs and their handlers pass the Pet Partners therapy dog evaluation. Once a dog completes the Pet Partners exam, Pet Partners connects the dog owner with places that are looking for therapy animals to come and visit.
"They also help you navigate important things about having a good therapy dog such as how to speak to your clients when you're doing therapy and how to support your animal," said Healy.
The Pet Partners evaluation doesn't just look at the dog's behavior. They also look at the handler and make sure that the handler is really good at reading the dog's stress signals. It's important for the handler to be able to tell if their dog is getting over aroused, worried, or fatigued.
"The Pet Partner's exam includes different handling exercises and scenarios such as rough petting," explained Healy. "If a little kid runs up, they might not be gentle with your dog, so we have to make sure that these dogs are super comfortable being handled and won't growl if someone tries to pick them up."
Another example is being able to handle extreme emotions. So, for instance, the dogs would be exposed to an angry couple yelling at each other.
"We want to make sure that the dog's not going to be startled by that, and it's willing to keep working in an environment, even if there is some uncomfortable stuff going on around them," said Healy.
Yes, being able to teach your dog basic obedience and good behavior is the foundation of becoming a good therapy dog. But beyond that, a good therapy dog needs to not only crave attention from new people but be manageable enough to behave themselves in a variety of situations, from not being startled by strange medical equipment to being fine if a young child or Grandma tries to pick them up or pull on their ears.
Once your dog meets the requirements to for training a therapy dog, there are many things they can do. They can start supporting people's mental health in schools, crisis centers, hospitals, libraries, airports, or anywhere they are invited.