Therapy dog training programs exist throughout the country and are growing in response to needs in nursing homes in particular. Have you ever wondered what therapy dogs are? How are they trained? What are they trained to do?
There is an important distinction to be made between therapy dogs and service dogs. While service dogs are trained to directly serve and assist their humans with physical or emotional problems, therapy dog training involves the dog interacting with humans to provide entertainment and comfort.
Therapy dogs are also not to be confused with emotional assistance animals. Emotional assistance dogs are usually designated for personal use and are assigned by a physician, psychologist, or psychiatrist to provide emotional support to their owners via a prescription and for a specific purpose, such as providing anxiety relief when his/her owner is flying. Therapy dogs, however, are specially trained to provide emotional support, comfort, and entertainment to many different individuals in a variety of public and private facilities.
The idea behind therapy dogs comes from the natural comfort most people find when interacting with dogs. The origins around therapy dog training are unclear. In general, however, most credit the idea to Elaine Smith, a registered nurse working in the U.K. who observed patients reacting positively to a hospital Chaplin’s dog. She returned to the U.S. in 1976 to develop a program for training dogs to assist in the therapy of patients in various aspects of the medical field.
Over time, the idea caught on as members of the medical field were able to document the positive and even curative effects the dogs could have on patients. The dogs not only helped provide comfort for physical ailments, but also provided some relief for psychological and emotional problems and even lifted depression.
The dogs trained to provide therapeutic services today go to a variety of facilities, from schools and libraries to foster, nursing, and retirement homes and to disaster areas or places in severe crisis. One group of 20 therapy dogs and volunteer handlers responded to the 1995 terrorist attack in Oklahoma City: the bombing of the Murrah Federal building.
In hospitals, these dogs often provide comfort and emotional relief to patients fighting chronic diseasesTherapy dogs are now even used in libraries for helping teach literacy. Children will read to the non-judgmental dogs, and over time, they will become more confident and secure with their ability to read. In schools, these dogs are used for a variety of issues, including providing stress-relief for young school children and college students during exams.
Although it may not be a requirement for dog training certification as a therapy animal, the dog should have completed basic dog obedience training, often by a professional dog trainer or at a dog training school. Therapy dog training involves rigorous time and effort spent toward teaching basic dog obedience training commands, including teaching a dog to sit, stay, lay down, and come, to name a few. Dogs used therapeutically are also taught special commands, such as how to jump on and off of beds (especially hospital beds) and how to approach or sit with individuals in wheelchairs.
In addition, dogs are often taught a number of tricks, including how to shake, give a paw, roll over, and speak. By being taught dog tricks, the dogs that go into some of the more depressing circumstances are able to bring joy and laughter to the individual or room of patients.
Because therapy dogs are dogs that are trained to help people in need, primarily of comfort, these dogs will go to nursing homes, hospitals, retirement homes, disaster sites, and even in schools to provide emotional support to humans in need.
A common thought is that therapy dogs, although they do need to go through significant training, are really not “made” but are “born” into the role. The most important aspect of dog therapy training is temperament, and no dog can be “taught” to have the right personality for this service role.
A therapy dog must love people, especially the elderly and children, get along well with other dogs, and enjoy being held, petted, and scratched, sometimes not-so-gently. The dog must also be comfortable with loud noises, sudden movements, and stay calm in very stressful situations and environments. Because of this, some organizations will require that the dog passes a dog personality test prior to being further tested or receiving any certifications.
Although there are a variety of dog training facilities, most therapy dog training organizations require that the dog has passed the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test. In addition to passing this test, dogs will have to meet a variety of other requirements depending on the locations they will be going to for therapeutic services.
The dogs will most often need to pass many tests, including tests to measure their behaviors and temperament around children and the elderly with and without supervision from their primary handlers and under no direct supervision whatsoever. This is because it is important to know how a dog will react to noises, smells, and other stimulating factors without their dog trainer present. The dog must be able to be controlled and listen to commands from anyone at any time.
Most dogs will also have to pass general health assessment tests and/or provide health certificates showing up-to-date vaccinations. Additionally, letters of recommendation from facilities and veterinarians may be required to help establish the dog’s natural-born temperament and personality traits.
For more information on therapy dog training requirements, testing, and evaluations, please visit the
Therapy Dog International website.