therapy dog in hospital bed with 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.

The Good Dog Foundation

This organization’s therapy dog teams provide services to nursing homes, schools, hospitals, and social service organizations in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“Good Dog’s mission is to elevate the stature and promote society’s understanding of the therapeutic value of the human-animal bond,” says Moschell Coffey, director of strategic growth, communications and operations.

The Good Dog Foundation not only registers your team but also certifies you. This means the Foundation itself helps train your dog and can guarantee that you are trained to a certain level.

To be eligible as a team, all dogs must be at least 6 months old and have a calm temperament. They should be outgoing, loving and gentle in their interactions with people. All teams attend between five to 11 weeks of training, which includes the following requirements:

1. Prescreening application and evaluation

All teams must fill out a prescreening application that is forwarded to a trainer in your region for review. The trainer in your region will then set up a free in-person evaluation. During this session, your dog’s behavior and relationship with you as the handler are evaluated. Once you pass this, you’ll be able to move on to classes.

2. Therapy I and II classes

In Therapy I class, you and your dog will receive training in basic obedience skills and receive an introduction to therapy work. After passing this class, teams move on to Therapy II, which teaches you how to operate in a therapy environment.

Anyone graduating from the Therapy II class, which costs approximately $265, receives certification, visit coordination services, and insurance for one year. After the first year, dogs re-certify by a visit observation, in-person trainer evaluation, and a yearly vet health form. The cost for annual re-certification, which includes continued visit coordination and insurance, is $85.

3. Veterinary exam

After successfully passing both classes, dogs must be cleared for work by a vet who assesses your dog and his medical and vaccination history.

Once this exam is passed, you will be a certified therapy dog team. During your first few visits, a Foundation trainer will accompany and guide you to make sure you’re ready to operate in a therapy setting.

Once you’re a team, you’ll need to get recertified every year.

Love on a Leash

The Foundation for Pet Provided Therapy, also known as Love on a Leash, certifies and registers therapy pets nationwide. They have 37 chapters across the country, and while dogs comprise the majority of their therapy pets, cats and rabbits can also become therapy animals.

To be certified and registered, all animals have to be at least a year old and have basic obedience training. Each team must meet the following requirements:

1. Control evaluation

All pets must be evaluated for temperament and obedience. A veterinarian can evaluate cats and rabbits, while a certified obedience instructor, behaviorist, professional dog trainer, or veterinarian can evaluate dogs.

“We prefer someone certified to perform the [AKC] Canine Good Citizen [test] but realize that some of our members are in remote areas of the country [and] still want to do therapy work with their pets, so [we] allow for others to do the control evaluation in those situations,” says Bonnie Biggs, board vice president of Love on a Leash.

You have one year from the date of your control evaluation to complete 10 hours of supervised visits. There is a max of one hour per day that can be counted, and the same person must do at least five of the visits. If there is no Love on a Leash member in your area to supervise you, an approved substitute can be found. This evaluator must be different form your control evaluator.

2. Submit visit evaluation form

The person who supervised at least five of your visits should fill out this form for you and send it back to Love on a Leash.

3. Complete membership application

If you’ve passed each evaluation, you can submit the membership application with two photos of your pet and the required fees (starting at $20). After a few weeks you will hear back about your acceptance as a team.

Once you are a registered and certified therapy team, you can visit any facility interested in having therapy pets. Animals, including cats and rabbits, need to be kept on a leash at all times during visits.

Making a Difference

Upon deciding you want to become a therapy animal team, think about whether you have a specific place you'd like to volunteer, like your local hospital or your children's school. Different locations are likely to have diverse requirements for their therapy animal program, so you'll want to confirm that they allow registered or certified therapy teams to volunteer, as well as whether they're affiliated with a specific therapy animal organization. 

While Love on a Leash registers and certifies teams to go into any facility allowing therapy animals, that's not always the case. Pet Partners offers a directory of locations registered teams can log into with a list of facilities actively looking for volunteers, although you're not limited to only those choices. The Good Dog Foundation serves over 315 specific facilities in the Northeast, so if you become certified through them, you would have to go to one of their partners.

If you decide to become a therapy animal team, there’s no doubt you’ll positively affect those you visit and feel good doing it. Jackie Gunby, a Pet Partners instructor and therapy dog team member, says that therapy teams leave an impact physically, mentally and emotionally.

“It is absolutely the most rewarding part of my life,” says Gunby. “When we visit, the smiles and diversion from the day seem to melt away their pain, frustration and loneliness.”