The Making of a Therapy Dog

Therapy Dog at Nursing Home

Q: I want to use my dog as a therapy dog in a school or hospital, but I’m not sure he has the personality. What makes a good therapy dog, and how do they get certified?

A: Therapy dogs, or visitation pets, have the potential to make a monumental difference in people’s lives. I have a Pug named Willy who has been certified for nearly five years as a Pet Partners  therapy dog. He has impacted the lives of countless individuals in various walks of life, from the young to the elderly. He can break down barriers with people and reach them on a “heart level” in a way that would be impossible without him. He has inspired numerous people, from leading youths on probation toward making better choices to bringing comfort and companionship to those who are sick or in long-term care.

Therapy Dog Versus Service Dog

Before talking about what makes a therapy dog, it's important to understand what a therapy dog is not. A therapy dog is not a service dog, who is allowed to go into public spaces to assist his person with a specific need. There is a common misconception that dogs certified as visitation animals get the same access as service animals, but there is a clear distinction between the two.

Service dogs perform a task or meet a need for an individual with a disability; thus, they are given access to public spaces to accompany their people. Service animals assist with conditions like autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, hearing or visual impairments, seizures, diabetes and limited mobility. In comparison, therapy animals are given limited access to public spaces but usually have a certification making it more likely that facilities will allow their access. The purpose of a therapy dog is to visit individuals or places to provide companionship, support and, in some cases, education to those they come into contact with. Therapy dogs are used in a variety of situations, including at hospitals, nursing homes and schools. They also help individuals deal with grief in the wake of natural disasters and other traumatic events.

Standards and Certification

The type of certification required for a therapy dog is varied and depends in large part upon the individual facility. Some facilities have strict requirements, while others are more open. It's important to contact your facility of choice to ascertain its standards. There are numerous certification programs, from nationally recognized initiatives like Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs International to local courses. Some programs, such as Pet Partners, recommend undergoing foundational certifications, such as the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen  test, before attempting their certification. Some facilities require only a “meet and greet” with a dog or Canine Good Citizen certification to allow an animal to visit residents.


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