Every so often, someone will casually mention that I should take my dog to a nursing facility or hospital to provide therapy. What they don’t realize is that therapy dogs are really, really well trained, certified pets who meet criteria and become a part of a facility’s therapy pet program. It’s not an “oh, my dog is nice, I think I’ll pop in and show him off” thing. It’s so much more.
What is a therapy dog?
A therapy dog is a pet dog who has been trained to provide comfort, stress relief, or emotional support to a person in need. They may sit still for petting, lie on beds, or do small tricks to provide enjoyment and relief for persons struggling with pain, anxiety, depression, or other disorders. Many therapy dogs provide care in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospice facilities, but may also visit schools or libraries where there is a need.
Any breed of dog can be a therapy dog, though some facilities may have size or breed restrictions. But it does take a special personality to become a therapy dog. The dog has to be more than just affectionate. They need to be calm and reliable even around strangers who may act erratically. They have to be okay with riding on elevators or sitting next to IV poles. They are trained not to act out when a child pulls their fur or a wheelchair runs over their tail. Most dogs are therapeutic to their families, but therapy dogs take this to a whole other level.
Still think your dog is therapy dog material?
If your dog has passed basic obedience and advanced training, such as the Canine Good Citizen Test, they might be ready for therapy dog training. Some training facilities will offer classes for potential therapy dogs, but a great deal of their preparation is socialization around people, strange situations, and even other dogs. They need to be able to sit and stay for extended periods of time without a handler close by. They’ll also work on commands like “leave it.”
Once they complete the class, there are exams to qualify as a therapy dog. In most cases, the exam is a simulation of a hospital or public facility, where a dog is expected to sit and stay without their handler nearby. Here, they’ll demonstrate that they aren’t bothered by all manner of strangers, loud noises, and scary looking medical equipment. If you want to see a breakdown of a sample test, and the testing requirements, Therapy Dogs International has a brochure to give you the play-by-play. After reading it, I think most dogs could manage in one or two of the scenarios, but very few will stay calm under the extreme circumstances simulated here.
If there is a facility that you’re hoping to volunteer at as a therapy team, contact their volunteer services department to find out what requirements they have. Some facilities will accept certificates from one therapy dog program but not others. This will help you decide where to pursue training.
Is a therapy dog the same as a service dog?
No. While some groups do allow service dogs to act as therapy dogs, they are not performing the same role. Therapy dogs provide comfort to members of the public, while service dogs perform other tasks and duties to a specific individual. Therapy dogs are not provided the same legal protections in the US. So, no, you may not be able to take your therapy dog into the grocery store or restaurant.
What opportunities exist for therapy dogs?
There is no shortage of work for therapy teams. Medical facilities are always looking for therapy animals to visit children or adults who are recovering from illness, receiving chemotherapy, or palliative care. There are also programs like Reading Education Assistance Dogs that encourage children to practice reading to a therapy dog, as a nonjudgemental audience. Elementary schools and even colleges are also introducing therapy dogs for students struggling with testing anxiety, or perhaps to provide comfort to students after a traumatic event.
Just remember, therapy work isn’t all cuddles and giving paw. The dogs must be regularly groomed and bathed before each and every visit. Most therapy teams work one or two shifts per month, though some work as needed and may even travel to provide therapy in times of crisis. It can be physically and emotionally taxing for both team members.
It’s not an easy challenge to become a therapy team. It’s a lot of work and commitment for the dog and the handler alike. But, when you have a chance to see a patient smile and forget about their pain or sadness, even for just a moment, it can be a profoundly rewarding, even life changing, experience.