Have you ever considered making your pup a therapy dog? As dog owners, we know the benefits and love that our pets bring us. There are so many good dogs who would love going places and being pet for a living. Not a bad gig, right? We will be breaking down information about therapy dogs in this post. Feedback and experiences are welcome, so feel free to post in the comments below.
What is a therapy dog? A therapy dog is essentially a volunteer who provides comfort and affection to those they visit. Unlike a service animal, therapy dogs do not have access to all public places. Common places therapy dogs are utilized are schools, hospitals, retirement facilities, disaster relief locations, special needs centers, and even airports. A recent trend is having therapy dogs to pet while at the airport or on college campuses during final exams in efforts to relieve stress. Therapy Dogs can visit places individually with their handler and with other therapy dog teams and are encouraged to be approachable.
There is often confusion between service, emotional support, and therapy animals. We have to distinguish these frequently and thought it was worth adding a simple chart from Love on a Leash showing the differences.
How do you know if your dog would be a good therapy dog? For us, it sparked when a class trainer pointed out Fletcher’s responsiveness to us and his sweet-tempered nature. Does your dog love humans? Fletcher, for some unknown reason, thrives with children being in his face. He doesn’t mind being tugged on the tail or paws and is rather compliant for a young rescue dog. On the other hand, he is still working on being comfortable around those who may be accompanied by wheelchairs/walkers/canes. In general, Fletcher is always up for going somewhere and meeting anyone.
Attentive, gentle-natured, adventurous, adjusts well to new environments, impartial to being smothered with love (aka smotherlove): Do any of those qualities remind you of your own pet? If so you may have a therapy dog in the making! It may help to reach out and observe a handler/dog team during a visit to see if it would be a good experience for you and your pup.
Next is choosing where to become a certified therapy dog team. The group or agency you choose to do training and certification with should have specific evaluators and be recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC). AKC does not certify or register teams, they only recognize teams certified under these organizations. Here is a list of some AKC recognized organizations. Do some research to see what is available in your area.
Most organizations request that your dog be an AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) as a prerequisite. While some places may allow you to simply apply and test for therapy dogs, it is suggested to become CGC certified as it is considered the groundwork for training. This certificate was formulated to encourage the training of well-mannered dogs and proper pet ownership. There are courses available separately for CGC certification. The testing is a ten-step exam that took us around fifteen minutes to complete. One additional benefit is many apartment complexes and rental companies accept Canine Good Citizens and may even waive associated pet fees.
Each organization may have varying requirements leading up to evaluation. Before beginning training, we needed annual wellness exams, fecal checks, and up to date vaccination records. The course we took lasted 9 weeks with different scenarios per session.
For example, one week we read to children, the next we had Boy Scouts come and throw a dance party, and another week we zig-zagged through the entire auditorium puppy class. As a handler/dog team, you will be put in various situations with different stimuli, possibly including other animals. This training prepares for these environments while reinforcing your bond with your dog. Your pup gets the reward of excitement and pets and love. You get the benefit of sharing your well-behaved fluffy companion with others and bringing home a loved but tired dog.
Therapy dog certification entails not only a testing portion, but observation where an evaluator will watch the team in action at facilities, one of them being a medical facility. These visits are exactly that, only with an experienced evaluator who can give you advice and suggestions for future visits.
After completing the course and certification exam, here are some things to consider:
- Once under an organization, you may go on visits according to that organization’s guidelines. Some choose to join local groups to become part of the therapy dog community, but it is usually not required.
- Most organizations provide liability insurance coverage. It is important to look through member handbooks or online information pertaining to coverage, renewal of membership, and visit guidelines. For example, our organization requires at least one visit every three months with annual fees to maintain membership and insurance.
- You are able to be further recognized as an AKC Therapy Dog Team after 50 visits. AKC has different titles dependent on number of visits completed. Make sure to keep a documentation sheet to track your visits. AKC has a downloadable sheet on their website you can fill out and send in for titles.
- Look up what is required for a visit. Our handbook suggests we bring: collar with red therapy dog tag, 4-foot or shorter leash, updated health/vaccination records, paper towels in case of clean-ups, water and bowl, handbook and documentation sheet. I always take a lint roller because, well, Fletcher is a shepherd.
We hope this was informative and encourages you to consider becoming a therapy dog team. It has been such a beneficial experience for us, Fletcher, and the people we interact with. We’d love to hear your thoughts so make sure to comment below.
Hi! I’m Marleigh. I am a nurse, military spouse and proud human to @fletcher_the_pup. We are lovers of dogs and adventures, especially in combination. Fletcher is a shepherd mix who is a puppy at heart and loves being around others. His big ears only add to his even bigger personality. Fletch is definitely the most photogenic person in the family and we hope our experiences can bring some joy to other peoples lives.