Becoming a Therapy Animal Team

therapy dog in hospital bed with patient
Photo by Kathy Prendergast
Jackie Gunby, a Pet Partners instructor and therapy dog team member, paying a visit to a patient.

From dogs to horses, there are many stories of therapy animals making a difference in people’s lives. The amazing tales are enough to inspire pet owners to register their own pets as therapy animals.

Think your pet would be perfect in a therapy setting? Ideal therapy animal candidates should relish being around people, be calm but outgoing, loving, and gentle, while still being reliable and predictable in a variety of public places and with all manner of strangers.

If this is a path you and your pet might be interested in pursuing, we've got you covered. We talked to three reputable nonprofits, Pet Partners, The Good Dog Foundation and Love on a Leash, to find out exactly what's involved in the process of becoming a therapy animal team.

Pet Partners

Pet Partners has over 11,000 registered therapy teams nationwide that visit hospitals, retirement homes, hospices, schools and even libraries. According to Mary Margaret Callahan, director of program development, the majority of their teams consist of dogs, but owners with cats, birds, rats, rabbits and guinea pigs are also able to register.

“One thing that distinguishes Pet Partners is our focus on training the human end of the leash and not just evaluating the animal,” Callahan says. “We know in these settings the animal and handler need to work together as a team so we train both partners.”

Only animals that are at least 1 year old (6 months old for smaller animals) and have been living with their owner at least six months can register. All animals need to have had basic obedience training prior to applying. Further requirements include:

1. Therapy animal handler course

Everyone must pay for and complete a registered animal handler course. This can be an in-person workshop or an online session. The course teaches the skills needed to volunteer in a therapy setting.

2. Visit a veterinarian

Every animal needs to receive a health screening. All pets must pass a general physical exam, be free of internal and external parasites, have up-to-date immunization requirements as prescribed by your vet, and have a current rabies certificate and immunization as recommended by state law.

3. Team evaluation

Now that you've passed the therapy course and your animal's health has been checked out, you’re ready to visit a licensed Pet Partners evaluator and go through a mock visit, which simulates the therapy environment. The visit is evaluated in two parts: how well the animal is controlled by the handler and listens to commands, and how well you and your pet respond to your surroundings. According to Callahan, the type of stimuli during the visit changes depending on the type of animal.

4. Paperwork

Once you’ve passed the evaluation, all you need to do is send in your registration paperwork and fee, which ranges from $30 (for an additional animal) to $90. You’ll receive an acceptance letter, ID, and animal badge. Once you receive these you can start visiting facilities. Pet Partners offers a directory on their website where you can find facilities to contact about visits.

After you’re a registered team, you need to be reevaluated every two years.


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