As a dog trainer and puppy raiser, I get asked about Therapy Dogs a few times a month. I have decided to post the information on this Blog, which will hopefully answer most questions. If you have addition inquires, feel free to contact me
Therapy Dogs are those that have been trained to a high standard to visit with individuals who may not otherwise have the opportunity to benefit from the therapeutic effects of interacting with a dog. Therapy Dogs are typically handled by their owners and taken to locations such as nursing homes or hospitals to visit with patients. School reading programs also employ Therapy Dogs to encourage children who are reluctant to read. Opening the pages of a book while sitting next to a kind, relaxed dog gives kids the chance to read aloud to a ‘friend’ who will not judge or criticize their performance.
Therapy Dog handlers volunteer their time to enhance other people’s lives. Although the two terms are sometimes mistakenly interchanged, a Service Dog is one which has been trained specifically for a person with a disability to help mitigate symptoms of the owner’s disability. Therapy Dogs provide beneficial interactions for others.
There is no national or governmental “certification” for Therapy Dogs. Therapy Dog handlers are not granted any special rights to travel in public with their Therapy Dog. Not every facility that welcomes Therapy Dogs to visit with their patrons requires that the dog has been certified. However, there are benefits of being endorsed by a Therapy Dog association. Some, but not all nursing homes and hospitals require Therapy Dog teams to be certified members of an official organization. If you want to schedule visits with local facilities, begin by asking what they consider acceptable verification of you and your dog’s training and behavior.
In the USA, there are many organizations that offer membership to dog- handler teams which have passed their test or evaluation and have agreed to follow the organization’s code of ethics and/or best practices. Each organization has a different method of certifying its member teams. Members enjoy the benefit of group liability insurance during official Therapy Dog visits.
This is a short list of national organizations which offer Therapy Dog certification. There are also local groups which provide the same service (see the last link to the AKC website.)
Alliance of Therapy Dogs https://www.therapydogs.com/alliance-therapy-dogs/
Therapy Dogs International https://tdi-dog.org/default.aspx
Pet Partners https://petpartners.org/
The American Kennel Club has a list of recognized Therapy Dog organizations including some of the smaller or exclusively local clubs: https://www.akc.org/sports/title-recognition-program/therapy-dog-program/
I suggest that you explore the various Therapy Dog organization websites. First, determine if there’s either a Tester or a club that offers tests in your local area. That may help you make the decision about which organization you will use for your certification. Next, review the organization’s testing requirements. Try performing the requirements of the test with your dog. Look for gaps in your handling ability or your dog’s training versus the test elements. That evaluation will tell you what sort of professional assistance you may require before attempting the certification.
A Therapy Dog that sits with kids during reading programs needs to be calm, relaxed and obey a down-stay and avoid distractions while a child pets her. Your dog may already be 90% of the way to becoming a great Reading Therapy dog! Visits to hospital settings or locations with a lot of activity and interruptions will require your dog to have excellent obedience to your authority. Begin working to that standard during your daily life with your dog.
If you feel you need professional assistance, look in your area for classes that will get you to the level of performance required of a certified Therapy Dog team. Some organizations encourage Dog Training Clubs to offer a specific class that will provide all of the instruction necessary to pass their Therapy Dog test. Do a search for local dog trainers or training facilities. You may find a club at the AKC website: https://webapps.akc.org/club-search/#/
Once you locate a training facility, you should ask if they require that you attend a lower level, beginner class before enrolling in the Therapy Dog class and if they offer the Therapy Dog test at their club.
Most Therapy Dogs are handled by their civilian owners in a volunteer capacity in children’s reading programs, hospitals or nursing homes. The last time I looked at the top three organizations, their liability insurance only covers you and your dog’s behavior when you are functioning as a volunteer. Pet Assisted Therapy (PAT) is a more formal use of therapy animals. Trained dogs may be used by a professional in a clinical setting to provide emotional support to clients. Occupational, Physical and Speech Therapists can also integrate a trained dog into their practice. In these cases, certification from an organization will not provide any liability insurance. I recommend that you speak to your employer or your insurance company (if you own the practice) before taking your dog into the facility.
Here are some examples of how a professional therapist can integrate a high functioning Therapy Dog into her practice.
Speech Therapy: A child that is reluctant to speak to an adult may be encouraged to communicate with a dog. The dog’s handler (who may be the therapist or could be a secondary dog handler) can teach the dog to follow subtle, non-verbal cues to perform specific behavior. When the child speaks to the dog, the handler commands the dog to execute the task, regardless of whether the dog “understood” the child’s words. The dog’s presence lightens the mood which can alleviate anxiety and it encourages the child to try again.
Occupational Therapy: In order to regain basic skills, a stroke victim may be more inclined to brush a dog than to brush his own hair. Alternatives include unbuckling the dog’s collar rather than his own belt, opening a package of treats and offering one to the dog or clipping the leash onto the dog’s collar. The options are endless, and again the dog’s presence makes the therapy seem more like fun.
Physical Therapy: Throwing a ball to a dog that gladly retrieves it may be more motivating to a paralysis victim than merely lifting his hand to his nose twenty times. The patient can bend down to take the ball from the dog or toss the ball into a bucket which the dog then fetches to the patient. Those are simple ways to make an otherwise challenging therapy session more enjoyable.
Mental Health Therapy: A school counselor, psychologist or social worker may find value in having a highly trained Therapy Dog in the office or work place. This reference from the Mayo Clinic website describes “animal-assisted therapy [as] a growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders.” https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/pet-therapy/art-20046342
Through our Service Dog company, Committed Canine, we have trained Therapy Dogs for professionals, such as school child psychologists or physical therapists for use in the workplace. Since the dog will be required to perform at a high standard of obedience in a public setting and perform tasks, we follow our Service Dog training process and just leave off the final element of the Public Access Test. If you would like a highly trained, high functioning Therapy Dog for a unique situation, please feel free to contact us