Training your dog to be a therapy dog

A tan and white dog, sits outside on the grass

Interested in learning more about therapy dogs, or perhaps considering training your own pup to be one? We’re here to answer all your questions!

What is a therapy dog?

Therapy dogs are dogs that work with a handler to provide affection and comfort to members of the public. These pups may visit schools, hospitals, or nursing homes, to name a few places. 

Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs have no special rights and must obtain permission to enter public places that are not otherwise pet-friendly. 

Which types of dogs do best as therapy dogs? 

Kid scratching dogs belly

While there are no breed or age restrictions for therapy dogs, not every pup is cut out for this special job. Dogs that are obedient, calm, gentle, outgoing, and not easily overwhelmed are generally best suited for this role. Additionally, therapy dogs must be comfortable being touched—sometimes by many hands at once.

As you consider whether your furry friend would make a good therapy dog, make it a point to observe their behavior in a variety of different settings that involve interaction with people of all ages. Watch for any indications that your pet is stressed, such as retreating or abnormal panting, even if they're perfectly friendly and well behaved. 

Therapy dog work in the community requires teamwork, and making sure that you know what to expect as a therapy dog handler is just as important as making sure that Fido is up to the task. Building connection is a key part of the role, and therapy dog handlers can generally anticipate engaging in lots of conversation. If the thought of small talk makes you want to run and hide, you may want to consider a different activity for you and your pup to take on together.

What are the benefits of training a therapy dog?

Any dog person knows that simply being in the presence of a canine companion is a day-brightener. When you train your dog to be a therapy dog, you become a team whose essential job is to bring comfort and joy to the community.

In addition to providing emotional support, therapy dogs also bring many physical benefits to the humans they visit. As the American Kennel Club notes, interactions with therapy dogs have been shown to cause lower blood pressure, reduced anxiety, and increased levels of endorphins in humans.

And it isn’t a one-way street — studies have shown that therapy dogs have higher-than-average levels of endorphins and oxytocin compared to other pets!

What training is required to become a therapy dog?

A solid foundation of obedience is key for any dog to complete therapy dog training and take the work to the real world.

Golden retriever practicing nose touches

The first step to becoming a therapy dog is passing the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test. This test evaluates a dogs’ manners and obedience, and dogs that pass will receive a certificate. Animal Humane Society offers the test at our Golden Valley location, though it is currently limited to training school students. 

Once a dog is canine good citizen certified they are able to register for AHS’s eight-week therapy dog prep class where we will:

  • Review obedience skills
  • Work through desensitization exercises
  • Provide opportunities to shadow active therapy dog teams
  • Discuss common animal-assisted therapy scenarios that will set you and your dog up for success in a public setting.

See our therapy dog prep class information page for more details and how to register.

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