Unlike a service dog, who is trained to provide behaviors that specifically assist a disabled person, a therapy dog provides general support to multiple people.
Where a service dog has its training and behavior tailored to a single person, a therapy dog does not provide assistance to a single person, but multiple people on a volunteer basis.
Those with therapy dogs often volunteer at nursing homes, hospitals, schools, and other areas where they can provide emotional support and brighten people’s days.
But what makes a good therapy dog? How do you train a therapy dog? Well, certain dispositions fare better for therapy dog training than others!
Who Makes a Good Therapy Dog
Unfortunately, not all dogs make good therapy dog candidates. It already takes hard work and training to develop your dog’s behavior to therapy-level obedience.
If you are starting with a dog who has a disposition that simply doesn’t fit into the therapy dog mold, you are fighting an uphill battle.
Good candidates for therapy dogs should already have a calm and friendly disposition. If your dog is anxious or fearful of strangers, you should absolutely work on that behavior (and we can definitely help you with that!), but you should not anticipate their behavior to improve to the point where they would make a good therapy dog candidate.
Similarly, if your dog has a hyperactive and extremely energetic personality, it might not make the best candidate for therapy. Of course, more hyperactive dogs can improve greatly with proper training and mental stimulation, even to the point where they might make better candidates.
However, for the most part, a dog who naturally has a calm and friendly disposition has a much easier time training for therapy dog work.
If you have a dog who already has a calm disposition, and is friendly while meeting strangers without becoming overexcited during the process, they might make a good candidate for therapy dog training!
How Does Your Dog Become a Therapy Dog
Each institute generally has its own rules and regulations when it comes to therapy dogs. For example, one hospital might recommend that all-volunteer therapy dogs pass a specific obedience test or have a certain certification before they are allowed to volunteer.
As a whole, there are no specific programs that “certify” your dog as a therapy dog and allow you to bring them anywhere you want.
Each individual business and company has its own rules, and therapy dogs do not have the legal rights to access public spaces as service dogs do.
With that said, many people who have therapy dogs are members of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Many therapy dogs must also pass an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Test, or an AKC CGC.
These are not hard-set requirements to have your dog become a therapy dog, but they are great starting places. Look into the specific requirements at the areas you would like to volunteer with your dog before making a final decision on the route you will take with the “certification” of your dog.
What Type of Training You Need
While many people take their dog to specific training classes for testing and certification, you can also take these types of tests without taking a specific class by the organization. Training your dog for therapy uses can absolutely be done yourself, as long as you know what you’re looking for.
You should check the specific behavior requirements of whatever certification or program you will use to volunteer, as these can vary based on the program. However, there are a few great starting places that you should focus on before you start working on specific details.
With a therapy dog, some of the most important training you can do is socialization and desensitization. Socialization involves allowing your dog to meet and interact with a wide variety of different people, while ensuring they have a positive experience.
Desensitization is the same, but with various locations, situations, and objects.
Socializing a Therapy Dog
Before jumping into the process of socialization, it’s important to touch upon a common mistake when socializing dogs. Pet owners often mistake socialization with exposure. This process is not simply about exposing your dog to as much as possible.
Instead, it’s about ensuring that each and every one of those interactions goes well and leaves a positive association for your dog.
It’s great to make sure your small breed meets all types of dogs and people. But it’s not so great if they’re hiding behind your legs terrified the entire time. Make sure you are always aware of your dog, their disposition, and their body language while you socialize them.
This will help you ensure that your dog is having a good interaction. You should also pair this process with food or some other reinforcer to help cement that positive association even if your dog is unsure.
Once you’re sure that your dog is having positive and impactful interactions, you want to address the types of socialization that you are focusing on.
When you socialize your dog, you want to socialize them to a variety of different dogs, but you also want to socialize them to a variety of different people.
They should meet people of varying ages, ethnicities, and sizes. Ensure your dog is comfortable with small children, teenagers, middle-aged men and women, and the elderly.
You should also introduce them to people of various ethnicities, and to people with differing personalities and dispositions as well.
Desensitizing a Therapy Dog
In addition to people (and dogs), you want to ensure that your dog is comfortable in a wide variety of locations, situations, and around unknown objects. Let’s take a hospital for example.
Hospitals contain a number of different equipment that makes all types of different noises. In addition to your dog being comfortable with strange noises and unknown objects, they should also be familiar with visiting different locations and types of buildings.
As is the case with socialization, it is important to ensure that during therapy dog training your dog is comfortable and having positive interactions the entire time.
With positive interactions, good associations, and a wide variety of socialization and desensitization, your dog will be well on their way to a solid therapy dog candidate!