How can my dog become a therapy dog?

by PetCloud / Pet Owner Advice / 14 Jun 2020

patient in hospital holding a small therapy dog

Is your dog a people lover? Your furry therapist may be just the prescription for patients in hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities.

What is the purpose of a therapy dog?

Studies have shown that holding or petting an animal can lower blood pressure, release tension, decrease loneliness, and decrease anxiety depression. That's where therapy dogs come in.   Therapy dogs can provide relief and comfort when disaster strikes, such as during the aftermath of cyclones, floods, and now the Covid19 pandemic. Unlike service dogs with more grim jobs, these volunteers simply offered the victims their unconditional love and a friendly wagging tail in the midst of despair.

What do therapy dogs do?

Interaction Visits are generally tailored around what the person needs.  Some Therapy dogs visit residents and patients in their rooms with their Carer for a bedside chat and pat or paw shake or cuddle, while other teams will visit residents in a common area for morning tea.  Many Aged Care homes will welcome small to medium dogs to jump up onto beds for an extra long cuddle.

Some therapy dogs and their Carers will visit libraries or schools so that they can sit quietly and be read to by children. These kids may be shy or lack confidence in their reading abilities, so who better to share a book with than a nonjudgmental best friend? Dogs are also being used in therapy for children with autism or other special needs.

What's the difference between a Therapy Dog, an Assistance dog, and a Service Dog?

Assistance Dogs are quite different from Therapy Dogs.  For example an Assistance Dogs are specifically trained to reduce the impact of people living with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) suffered by ex service men and women from the Australian Defence Force or Police personnel diagnosed with PTSD.  For example these people may suffer constant nightmares from being deployed out in the battle field with bombs and gunshots or who have witnessed colleagues legs blown off or the result of traffic accidents that have been highly traumatic where humans have been unrecognisable and disfigured.  So they may disengage from society as they feel they can no longer relate to people in their community.  This is where Assistance Dogs can help guide those back to a feeling of safety, helping to improve interpersonal connections, encourage engagement in the community, and regain areas of functioning that may have been diminished by their trauma.

Service Dogs are trained to do tasks as a team that eases their human handlers’ disabilities to help them attain safety and independence. For exmaple, a Visually impaired person, who may use a Guide Dog.

Therapy dogs also receive training - but have a completely different type of job from Service Dogs. Therapy Dogs provide psychological or physiological therapy to individuals other than their handlers.

Where can you get a therapy dog?

Therapy dogs come in all ages, shapes and sizes. Some are purebreds, and some come from local shelters. The most important quality of a therapy dog, of course, is its personality. 

What traits do therapy dogs have?

  • They're Able To Ignore Stimuli
  • They're Able To Get Along With Others
  • They're Balanced (ie. not overtly over the top friendly and excited)
  • They're Eager To Please
  • They're Calm
  • They're Adaptable
  • They're Intelligent
  • They Like To Be Touched
  • They're Gentle

What requirements do Therapy Dog Handlers have to have?

If your dog has all the right traits or can be trained to, the next thing you have to consider is ... you.   Almost as important as the personality of the dog is the personality of its handler. Before putting yourself and your dog through hours of training and preparation, it's a good idea to contact a therapy dog organisation in your area and go along on some visits without your dog. This will give you a good idea whether the visits are something that you would enjoy doing.

Are you relaxed around strangers? Do hospitals or nursing homes make you uncomfortable? Examine your feelings on these initial visits as you observe the other handlers. Keep in mind, however, that shyness is likely to decline and comfort levels to rise the more visits you make. If this is something you really want to do, don't let a little discomfort stop you.

If you do decide that hospitals and nursing home visits aren't for you, perhaps something involving children would suit you better. 

Consider the time involved in handling a therapy dog before jumping in with both feet. If you feel unable to make a full commitment, perhaps the organisation would have a more limited role for you and your dog to play. Many organisations have opportunities that run the gamut from one-on-one interactions to working with large groups, fundraisers and even birthday parties.

How does my dog become a certified therapy dog?

Many organisations can test and certify your pooch.  It will depend on what type of volunteer work you and your dog will be doing. 

Therapy Dog Training classes (usually 4+ hours over several weeks) with an Accredited organisation.  Your dog will need to demonstrate they the ability to follow a series of commands (sit, stay, off, leave it, say hi).  Monitored visits may need to occur to observe how your dog does interacting with different types of people.  For example, they may want to make sure, for instance, that your dog is comfortable around canes, walkers, wheelchairs, or children. You may also need an Annual Proof of health Certification from a vet.

What type of dog can be a therapy dog?

Before setting your best friend up for evaluation and tests, the two of you should successfully complete a dog training class. It is here that you will learn how to keep your dog under control, and where your dog can demonstrate that he works and plays well with others, including other canines. Your dog must be able to handle excitement and distraction. Exuberant dogs may need to get a little longer in the tooth before they are ready to display the self-control that being a therapy dog demands.

Good therapy dogs are calm and obedient, even around other dogs, and enjoy being handled and petted. They are friendly with strangers and tolerant of clumsy or sudden movements and loud noises.

So, only strait-laced pups need apply? Not at all. When they aren't working, therapy dogs are as exuberant and playful as the next guy. Like humans, great therapy dogs are able to distinguish which behaviors are appropriate for “the office” and which are not. At home, they can let loose and just be a  family pet – you know, the one that chews your slippers and knocks over the toddler.

When you and your pooch are ready to spread the love, you can search online for a pet therapy organisation in your area to get certified, or contact a national organisation to find a representative near you. 


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