How to Train a Therapy Dog

By Jane Meggitt

Training a therapy dog involves teaching basic obedience and socialization skills, and achieving certification from a qualified therapy dog organization. Therapy dogs aren't service dogs, trained to provide aid to the disabled. Rather, these are pet dogs who visit various facilities, including libraries, nursing homes and schools, to bring affection and joy to residents and children. Although you can train a therapy dog on your own, many pet therapy organizations require proof that your dog has passed a standard skills test. If your dog has the right temperament, the two of you can brighten the day for many people.

Therapy Dog Candidates

Therapy dog candidates must like people and have good manners. That means no jumping up on people, no unnecessary barking, no food stealing and no hyperactivity. Most programs do not permit dogs under the age of 1 year to participate -- it's just too much stimulation for these adolescent canines. When visiting a facility, whether it's a hospital, school or nursing home, a therapy dog must be clean and well-groomed.

Basic Requirements

Different therapy dog programs have varying requirements, but some basic rules apply across the board. Your dog must be up-to-date on all vaccinations -- he's going into hospitals and other facilities containing folks with compromised immune systems. If he's receiving certain veterinary care, including treatments for fungal infections or any medications suppressing his immune system, he can't participate until he's well. A dog with a history of biting or other aggressive behavior cannot qualify as therapy dogs. Dogs who have received Schutzhund protection training cannot participate in the therapy certification program operated by Pet Partners, one of the country's largest pet therapy organizations.

Canine Good Citizen

Many therapy dog organizations require potential candidates to pass the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen test. Any dog, purebred or mutt, can take the test. Besides basic training -- such as heel, sit, stay, down and come -- your dog must accept strangers, permit petting, react well to other canines, and calmly walk through a crowd. He can't panic if separated from you for a short time. All of these qualities are necessary for therapy dogs. Dogs who pass the CGC test receive a certificate stating they made the grade.

Therapy Training Classes

Pet therapy programs, community organizations, humane societies and dog trainers offer certified pet therapy classes. In these classes, your dog is introduced to scenarios he might encounter while visiting a hospital or nursing home. This might include introducing him to people in wheelchairs, hospital beds and other institutional situations. Depending on the course, you might visit a facility so your dog's reaction is gauged. At the end of the course, your dog is evaluated. If he passes, he receives certification as a therapy dog.