Therapy Dogs

What do therapy dogs do? Can your dog become one?

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #132

Imagine for a minute that you’re hospitalized, or doing time in a nursing facility for physical rehab. Wouldn’t some dog facetime cheer you up? It might even speed your recovery. Or maybe your developmentally disabled kid brother lights up whenever he has a chance to pet a dog. This week, therapy dogs – what they do and how to teach your dog to be one..

This being The Dog Trainer’s Quick and Dirty Tips, I’ll speak of therapy dogs, but dogs aren’t the only therapy animals. I’ve met a therapy cat, there are therapy llamas and rabbits, and a study of Alzheimer’s patients found they ate more when there was a fish tank on their ward. Therapy fish, maybe!  Also, people in the field distinguish between animal-assisted activities (AAA) and animal-assisted therapy (AAT). The first involves visiting and socializing, with no particular aim in mind other than to improve well-being; in animal-assisted therapy, though, the dog’s presence has a specified goal. For example, visits from a dog may be geared to help an autistic child improve his social skills.

Certified therapy dogs are at ease with strangers and comfortable with the sounds and sights of hospitals and nursing homes.

How to Qualify as a Therapy Team with Your Dog

Are you all ready to leash up and head over to your local nursing home? Whoa, Nelly! Qualifications first. Most institutions partner with a therapy-dog certification group. Therapy Dogs International and the Delta Society are national organizations; local and regional groups also exist – for instance, the Good Dog Foundation serves New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

These organizations screen the dog-and-human team to make sure they’re well suited to the work. The canine half of the team has to be at ease with strangers, of course. It’s also important that your dog be comfortable with metallic and electronic noises, walkers, wheelchairs, unusual gaits, and clumsy handling.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).