Dogs have a fantastic ability to help people feel calmer, happier, and less stressed. If you’re an animal lover, you know how petting your faithful companion or snuggling them close can help even the sourest of moods fade.
Your adult dog can become a therapy dog if you’re willing to put in the work. You can expect to train your dog for about two months or register them for a therapy dog program. Any dog could become a therapy dog if they have the appropriate temperament and are well-behaved.
You might have thought at some point that your dog would make an excellent therapy dog. After all, your pup’s there for you when you need them and helps you through tough times. Why not train them to help others cope and overcome? But what’s the process for your dog to become an emotional support animal (ESA) or comfort dog?
Can Any Dog Be a Therapy Dog?
According to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, any breed or mixed-breed dog at least one year old can be a therapy dog. Of course, you also must consider your pup's disposition, behavior, and willingness to train. You also need to take into account your own behavior and personality.
Therapy dogs often visit hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, mental health facilities, and sick or struggling people. When you volunteer to help others through visits with a therapy dog, you can make a significant positive impact on their well-being. For example, a study from BMC Psychiatry suggests that pets can provide various benefits to those with mental health issues.
Does your dog already have a natural affinity for socializing with people and remaining well-behaved in public? Likewise, are you empathetic, with a desire to help others? If so, you and your dog may already be in a good place to start spreading joy. However, you can’t just waltz into a hospital with your pup and announce that they’re a therapy dog.
If you’re considering your dog becoming an emotional support animal, you must first go through a few steps. Your dog needs the proper certification to become a therapy dog. It’s wise for both of you to go through the proper training. Then you can ensure you and your dog are fully prepared to carry out the duties of a therapy dog.
What Training Does a Dog Need to Be a Therapy Dog?
There are several therapy-dog training programs that you can use to transition your dog into being an ESA. You also have the option of training your dog yourself. Either way, as long as you remain dedicated and consistent, you can expect to spend 6 to 8 weeks on training.
The Process to Become a Therapy Dog
Seek certification through a reputable and qualified national organization. Basic training is always a must, with your dog responding appropriately to commands like sit, stay, leave it, and so on. However, they must also exhibit good behavior and appropriate responses to others.
To help you make a checklist of which commands your dog should learn, consult the Canine Good Citizen Test (CGCT). The test focuses on ten basic skills every dog must pass to be a good canine citizen.
These skills include:
- Accepting a Friendly Stranger
- Sitting Politely for Petting
- Appearance and Grooming
- Walking on a Loose Leash
- Walking Through a Crowd
- Staying in Place (Sit and Down on Cue)
- Coming When Called
- Appropriate Reaction to Other Dogs
- Appropriate Reaction to Distractions
- Supervised Separation
Many therapy-dog-training certification programs require these skills or that your dog has passed the CGCT test. In addition, the program may also require your dog to pass more therapy-specific tests. Make sure to get the low-down on whichever certification program you choose so you can follow the correct steps.
Once you pass the necessary tests, your pup can achieve various therapy dog titles after a certain number of visits. For example, after ten visits, your dog can earn the title of a novice therapy dog. But after 100 visits, your dog can reach an advanced title and continue to move up the ranks.
Making Sure Your Dog Looks the Part
As you noticed in the list of skills above, your dog's appearance is also essential. Make sure to keep your pup well-groomed and clean. Remember, your dog will be interacting with many people, including children and those who are sick.
If your dog is a heavy shedder, always brush them well before you go on any visits. It’s also a good idea to bring a pet hair remover, like the FurDozer, with you to help clean up after your pet.
Should You Train Your Dog to Be a Therapy Dog?
You can train your dog to help them pass their tests, but you need the right personality and disposition. It’s important to understand that your pup is only half of the team when it comes to being a therapy dog. You, as their handler, will also be visiting the children, patients, and others your dog is trying to help.
If you are unsure of your abilities to work with your dog, it can pay to find a reputable trainer to work with both of you. Find a trainer that specializes in working with therapy dogs and their handlers.
Benefits of Having a Therapy Dog
Therapy dogs can offer many benefits to others, but there are also upsides for you and your pup. Studies have suggested that therapy dogs and their owners experience higher endorphins and lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone).
It’s also an enriching and rewarding experience for you when you’re a part of making someone else feel better. Whether visiting sick patients or helping young children read, you impact someone else’s life.
Your therapy dog also offers you emotional support as well. You might experience a stronger bond with your pup and a deeper relationship.
Does a Therapy Dog Get the Same Rights as a Service Dog?
It is important to understand that as a therapy dog, your pup won’t get the same rights as a service dog. These two categories are very different.
Service dogs are expertly trained to carry out specific tasks related to their owners’ disabilities. Service dogs typically can go anywhere with their owner, possessing legal rights under the American Disabilities Act. However, emotional support animals, or therapy dogs, do not get these same legal rights.
With the proper certification, they can go into various places that allow therapy dogs, like libraries, hospitals, schools, etc. However, no one is required to let your dog on the premises because they are an ESA. Some businesses, like airlines or hotels, might waive additional pet fees for your therapy dog, but that is strictly at their discretion. They are not obliged to do so.
Is Your Dog Ready to Be a Therapy Dog?
After looking at all the possibilities and procedures, it’s time to decide if becoming a therapy dog is right for your pup. Choosing to make your dog a therapy dog involves time and patience. It also takes a willingness on your part to do the work. But once you decide and pass the appropriate tests, you’ll find all sorts of opportunities to help others.
For more tips on ways to do amazing things with your pets, check out the rest of our blog. Being a pet parent is all about making life better for you and your furry friends.