How to Get a Therapy Pet Certification

Picture of a woman holding a dog

For many centuries, dogs have been purposefully bred to fill a wide number of specific roles. While some breeds were put to work as herders and others to rid their owners’ properties of rodents or accompany their family on hunts, some were intended simply to function as beloved companions. No matter what a dog’s intended job may have been, all excelled at one role: providing needed stress relief. In recent years, dogs have been trained to serve as therapy dogs, offering an important type of support for those suffering from physical limitations, emotional distress, or other ailments. If you’re thinking your dog might be suited to work as a therapy dog, you may be wondering—how can I get a therapy certification for my pet?

What are the Differences Between Therapy Dogs, Service Dogs, and Emotional Support Animals?

There are three different types of work dogs can be trained to assist humans with. These are defined as therapy, service, and emotional support work, respectively. Each of these roles comes with very specific tasks the dogs must be trained to do. Determining just which type of assistance you need is an important first step in the training process.

Here are the differences between the three types of support dogs:

Therapy dog
The main role of a therapy dog is to provide a constant calming effect on people who are prone to anxiety. Therapy dogs are sometimes placed in homes with people who are suffering from grief or loneliness. In addition to this, therapy dogs are often taken to hospitals, nursing homes, and educational centers to help provide comfort and affection to residents and students.

Service dog
While therapy dogs primarily provide emotional support for those suffering from grief, loneliness, or anxiety, service dogs are trained specifically to assist people with certain physical limitations or health conditions. The most common reasons people seek a service dog is to provide support for diabetes, blindness and other vision impairment issues, or seizure disorders. The American Disabilities Act permits certified service dogs to accompany their owner or handler anywhere the person needs to go. While therapy dogs are taken to many different places and work with a large number of people, service dogs are typically assigned to one person that they serve for life.

A service dog is a true working dog. As such, interaction with the dog by others is strongly discouraged as it could distract the dog from its job.

 Emotional support animal

Emotional support animals are dogs that provide reassurance and stress relief to a person through their constant companionship. Because this type of work is intuitive and not trained, no certification is available. Emotional support animals typically display a natural affinity for this type of work, and thus, it is not a learned behavior. It is also not specific to any particular breed though some dogs are often better at this role than others.

How Does Having a Therapy Dog Help a Person?

Therapy dogs are somewhat like emotional support animals in that their steady companionship helps alleviate stress, loneliness, and grief in a person. Simply by having a dog to pet and care for helps shift the person’s focus from what is troubling them to something more productive for their mental health. Research shows that spending even a limited amount of time petting a dog helps to increase the production of beneficial hormones that help to regulate and improve mood such as serotonin, oxytocin, and prolactin.

But the presence of a therapy dog can also have great physical benefits for the person. Spending time with a therapy dog can assist with improvements in the following areas:

  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Lessened dependence on medication
  • Reduced discomfort and pain
  • Increased desire for exercise
  • Improved language development and social skills in autistic children

Can Any Animal Do Therapy Work?

Though dogs most commonly fulfill the role of a therapy pet, there are several other animals that also excel at this job. Among other pets utilized as therapy pets are:

Cats
Though cats aren’t typically as cuddly and openly affectionate as their canine counterparts, these furry felines are sometimes utilized in therapy programs at places like nursing homes. The cat’s roaming throughout the facility provides comfort for the residents, particularly when the kitty decides to curl up for a quick snuggle. The presence of a cat in a care facility can be very uplifting for those suffering from anxiety, stress, or depression. 

Horses
Horses are not the ideal choice for therapy work for one obvious reason: their size. Since transporting a horse is no easy task and most facilities are not large enough to permit a horse indoors, the therapy work horses do is primarily confined to outdoor locales. Horses are often utilized to assist with overcoming drug abuse, learning disabilities, and even rehabilitation from illness or addiction. 

Guinea pigs and rabbits
Because of their portability, guinea pigs and rabbits can also play an important role in providing relief for people that are hurting. Since both of these small creatures bond very deeply with their families, they are best reserved specifically for providing support within their own home environment.

Are There Specific Breeds That Make the Best Therapy Dogs?

Dogs are intuitive creatures that are easily able to sense the emotional state of those they come in contact with. Because of this natural ability, they are the most popular choice for therapy animals with over 50,000 of them currently involved in this work in the United States.

However, not all dog breeds are cut out for therapy work. Here is a list of the ten most popular breeds for therapy work:

  • Pugs
  • Poodles
  • Pomeranians
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Greyhounds
  • Golden Retrievers
  • German Shepherds
  • French Bulldogs
  • Dachshunds
  • Border Collies

What Makes Some Breeds Better than Others at Therapy Work?

Since there are certain tasks a therapy dog must perform, it is important to consider a dog’s natural traits and personality to ensure the dog is suited to the work. When selecting a dog for therapy work, these are the ideal characteristics to look for:

Excellent temperament
Since therapy dogs work directly with the public, an excellent, consistent temperament is an absolute must. Among the traits that should be avoided in any dog considered for therapy work is anger, volatility, and reactivity to stress. In addition to this, the dog should remain calm and content when petted and not prone to respond negatively if handled in a slightly rough manner.

Friendly
Dogs that are shy or aloof will not make for good therapy dogs. Since one of the dog’s main roles is social interaction, it is vitally important that potential therapy dogs enjoy and welcome social activity with a wide variety of people. However, there is such a thing as too much friendliness in this line of work. Dogs that are naturally overexuberant can overwhelm the people they are supposed to help, making them ill-suited to the work. Along the same vein, dogs with poor concentration lack the necessary skills for this particular job.

Adaptable
Because therapy dogs are required to enter a wide variety of different public places, they need to be able to feel at ease in many different environments. Some places the dog will need to visit may be very distracting, so a good level of concentration is necessary.

Low-shedding
Since many people suffer from allergies, it is important to select a dog for therapy work that is low to no-shedding if possible. Therapy dogs are meant to provide comfort to those in distress. Dogs that shed a great deal can mean extra mess for hospital or nursing home staff to clean after a visit. For dog breeds with thick double coats that are more prone to shedding, it is recommended that they be thoroughly brushed prior to any therapy work.

Are There Places that Do Not Permit Therapy Dogs?

There is a difference between therapy dogs and service dogs and where each is permitted to go with their owner or handler. Because therapy work primarily deals with providing emotional relief, government restrictions prevent these dogs from entering many public buildings including: 

Colleges
While some colleges do permit therapy dogs to enter classrooms, many do not allow these types of support dogs to live in on-site dormitories. Rules vary from college to college.

Planes
In the past, therapy dogs were permitted to travel with their handler on flights at no cost. Because this privilege was abused, this is no longer the case.

Hotels
Some hotels are pet-friendly and allow owners to bring their dogs with them regardless of whether they are simply pets or if they are working dogs like therapy, service, or emotional support animals. However, though service dogs are permitted in all hotels, therapy dogs may not necessarily have this same privilege afforded to them. It is best to contact the hotel directly for their policy regarding therapy dogs.

Work
While service dogs are permitted in the workplace, most therapy dogs are not.

How Do You Train a Therapy Dog?

Most often, people wanting a therapy dog don’t use a family pet they already own. Instead, they contact a reputable breeder to explain what they are looking for in a dog and wait until a puppy best suited to the work becomes available. In some cases, adult dogs and rescues display the perfect temperament for therapy work and can be trained to excel at this role.

There are certain basic skills all therapy dogs must be able to display either naturally or when requested to do so. These skills are requirements for passing the Canine Good Citizen test, a recommended training program and examination for all therapy dogs. The tested areas include:

Accept a friendly stranger
The dog permits the presence of a stranger who then interacts with its handler.

Sit politely for petting
The dog should sit when asked to do so and allow a friendly person to pet them.

Appearance and grooming
The dog should be neatly groomed and should allow a stranger to brush or comb them and inspect their nails.

Walk on a loose lead
The dog walks nicely on a loose leash and shows no signs of pulling.

Walk politely through a crowd
The dog displays a willingness to walk politely through a crowd of people on a loose lead.

Sit, down, and stay
The dog must obey the commands to sit, down, and stay when asked to do so. In addition to this, the dog must stay in that position until the handler gives them permission to move.

Come when called
The owner will place the dog in a sit stay then walk ten feet away from the dog. When the dog is called, he should then come directly to his owner.

Polite behavior around another dog
The dog must behave politely when introduced to another dog.

Proper reactions to distractions
When presented with two different distractions, the dog recovers quickly and does not overreact. 

Supervised separation
The dog is taken out of the sight of his owner for a period of three minutes. During the separation time, the dog does not show signs of distress and does not excessively vocalize.

Once the dog has passed this examination and receives his CGC certificate, it is a good idea to start taking the dog to new places where the same exercises can be practiced. This helps the dog to understand that the same behavior required at the testing site and at home is also required when in a new setting. Care should be taken not to overwhelm the dog through too much practicing.

What is the Process for Certification?

There is a specialized test that service dogs must pass in order to become certified for work in that industry. Once successfully completed, credentials are issued, and the dog is provided with a vest which indicates the dog has been approved for service work and is entitled to all of the privileges that come with it.

There is no set standardized testing for therapy dog certification. The best course of action for those wishing to utilize their dogs in this capacity is to complete the Canine Good Citizen training and examination then to find an organization that can provide further assistance to prepare the dog for their testing process.

Unlike with service dogs, registering a therapy dog is not required. However, for owners hoping for their dogs to be of greater help, it is often a good idea to obtain an identification card and to enter the dog’s information into a database where the owner can be contacted when a therapy dog is needed in their area.

Thinking your dog has what it takes to make a great therapy dog? Contact your local kennel club to find out more about the Canine Good Citizen program as a first step to a wonderful career helping people in need.

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