We are often asked about preparing a puppy or adult dog for therapy dog work. The well-meaning dog parent does not truly know what a therapy dog candidate should possess in regards to skills, preferences, and what organization makes the most sense for their interests. In this blog, we will discuss what to consider when assessing your dog for the role of a therapy dog.

Does your dog enjoy attention from strangers?

Most therapy dog candidates seek out attention from strangers. It makes their day when a new person is nearby who wants to interact with them. The dog will likely make eye contact to try and get attention from the stranger. Once they are interacting the dog will be close in space, enjoy petting, and when the person stops petting will ask for more. A good candidate may also seek out people who are acting sad. They have a knack for noticing when a person is having extreme emotions.  

Another characteristic to consider with a therapy dog candidate is their preference for certain types of people. It is not required that the therapy dog love attention from all types of people. The dog may enjoy children or senior citizens or adults or people in wheelchairs. That being said, they do need to be comfortable around all kinds of people. Let’s say your dog feels comfortable around people but prefers children. Then you can look for therapy dog organizations and visits that are specifically for children. What would be a problem is if your dog loves affection from children, but is uncomfortable around adults.  

What does your dog do around new dogs?

While a therapy dog does not need to love other dogs, they must be comfortable and appropriate around new dogs. Some therapy dog teams work within a group. So they may have to walk into a visit together, share an elevator, and may even see non-therapy dogs during a visit. If your dog pulls to see other dogs we can work on teaching your dog alternative behaviors and understanding when they have permission to greet. If your dog can be reactive around new dogs (barking, growling, lunging, try to bite) or shy then official therapy dog work or certain therapy dog organizations may not be appropriate for your dog.

How does your dog in new environments?

A therapy dog may be asked to visit places with loud noises, slick floors, and lots of activity. A therapy dog must be confident in a variety of environments. If they love attention from people at your house but are worried at the hardware store your dog might not be a candidate for official therapy dog work. That being said, you can work on their confidence to see if they can overcome sensitivities before completing throwing in the towel.  

When preparing a dog for therapy work we recommend a focus on training them in new environments. This way they understand new places are safe. A well-socialized dog who has confidence can be a huge help when preparing for therapy dog work.

Does your dog jump all over guests? Does your dog pull when on a walk? Does your dog have a solid “leave-it”?

If your dog’s personality lends itself to therapy dog work you’ll next need to assess where they are in their manners. A very social confident dog who likes to jump on guests, pulls on leash out on walks, and likes to pick-up things can be trained to be a well-mannered dog in public. The longer your dog has been practicing the undesired behavior, the longer it may take to build a solid behavior, but you would be surprised how much you can accomplish with positive reinforcement training.  

In our therapy dog class, we work on things like:

  • Loose leash walking
  • Polite greeting of people and dogs
  • Leave-it (something on the floor to someone handing them a treat)
  • Connection with their handler
  • Separation from their primary handler
  • Door manners for public access (waiting to let other people go through a door)

The earlier you start training your dog the better! We recommend building a well-rounded dog from puppyhood, when possible, and then you can hone their skills as they mature for the activities you both enjoy.

Can my puppy be a therapy dog?

Most organizations want your dog to be 1 year of age before taking their test. If you feel your puppy is a good candidate for therapy dog work, you can start training immediately. Again, we want a well-rounded puppy/dog as our first goal regardless of the activities or jobs they might be doing in the future. Puppies go through many developmental stages from birth to three years of age. Do not get discouraged if you are working with your puppy towards therapy work and all of a sudden they become shy around strangers. Puppies go through fear sensitivity periods. These can last for a few hours, a few days, to months. You being patient, supportive, and consistent will help them grow through that period of development. Then when they are one year old you will be more than ready for the therapy dog test.

Are therapy dogs a living petting post?

People often think of therapy dogs as dogs people pet and hug for that release of oxytocin. Many types of therapy dogs are more than just for petting.  

Animal Assisted Therapy Animals – Did you know there are therapy dogs who help people work on mobility after a brain injury, accident, or another medical trama? These dogs may help people feel motivated to walk down a hospital hallway. They may be still for someone to brush their fur/hair.  

Therapeutic Visitation Animals – Did you know dogs can visit nursing homes, schools, hospitals, and areas where there has been a disaster to bring comfort and joy? Sure, these dogs likely will be pet and hugged. They can also do tricks to bring a smile to their day.  

Reading Therapy Visits – In some schools and libraries, they invite therapy dog teams to have dogs “listen” to children read to them. This helps the child progress in reading. They feel safe that the dog will listen no matter what without judgment. Some schools even have counselors who bring their dog for the children to work with.

There are many ways a therapy dog can help people!

Are you a good candidate for a Therapy Dog handler?

Now that you know more about what is needed to be a therapy dog it is important to assess a few things about yourself. The therapy dog is only half of the team. You too will need to determine if therapy dog work is for you. Some organizations require a certain amount of hours each month, they visit specific places, and the emotional toll you need to be prepared for when on certain visits.  

What types of visits might you enjoy? If you know your dog enjoys being around children, but you do not enjoy children then you’ll want to seriously consider what types of visits or how frequently you’ll visit certain places. Your enjoyment of these visits is just as important as your dog’s. Some visits can be more taxing to both of your emotions. Visiting nursing homes or cancer patients or hospice care units can be very depressing. You’ll want to regularly assess where you both are in your emotions. This may mean you limit those visits and/or alternate with other visits that will be less emotional.

Having a therapy dog can be somewhat of a status symbol. It is a role that will bring attention to you and your dog. You both could be providing a lot of good in the community. That being said, not being a good fit for the role (you or your dog) should not have a negative impact on your self-esteem nor how people (including you) view your dog. It’s not for everyone or every dog. There are plenty of other activities you two can do together.

My dog is a good candidate for Therapy Dog work, where do I get started?

Your first step is to research therapy dog organizations. We will have another blog post discussing those in the Atlanta area. When you do your research consider the following:

  • Do you already have some places in mind you’d like to visit? If so, what therapy dog organizations visit there, if any?
  • Where does the therapy dog organization visit?
  • Is the therapy dog organization open to visit other facilities?
  • What types of visits does this therapy dog organization prefer/serve? (i.e. reading programs, hospitals, disasters)
  • Does the organization do visits as a group? solo? or a combination?
  • Would you prefer to do group or solo visits?
  • Does the organization have restrictions on other activities you can be involved in?  
  • Do they allow you to be affiliated with other organizations?  
  • What are their feeding restrictions (most prohibit raw feeding)?  
  • What are their vaccination requirements?
  • Are you a therapist or counselor who would like to do in-office therapy dog programs? There is a special insurance you can secure to be safe. It is not required that you join a therapy dog organization.
  • What hours are required each month for a volunteer?
  • What does their test require?
  • When do they offer tests? How often do the teams get retested?
  • Is there a fee for being a part of their organization and/or to be tested?
  • Do they offer orientation to get to know the local organization members? If so, when is it offered?
  • What cities does the therapy dog organization serve?

If your dog may be a candidate for therapy dog work and you would like help training towards that goal, please reach out to us for the next available therapy dog group class.