Therapy Dog Training: General Conditions & Certification

Therapy Dog Training: General Conditions & Certification

Author WDF Staff


The popularity of therapy dogs has skyrocketed in recent years, and the public interest significantly increased. We learn a lot about all the benefits dogs can offer us, which doesn't limit to physical benefits, but mental benefits as well. Therapy dogs can play a huge role in some patients' lives, especially if they are dealing with anxiety. People that are lonely or are dealing with a loss of a family member or a friend can use a therapy dog for comfort and company.

Dogs can play many different roles, and they can help people in different ways. They can be therapy dogs, seeing-eye dogs, military and police dogs, or emotional support dogs. These jobs are different and require a certain set of skills and training, but that is nothing our four-legged buddies cannot handle. Here is what you need to know about therapy dogs and their training.

What is a therapy dog?

According to the American's with Disabilities Act, therapy dogs are not service dogs. Service dogs are trained to provide a specific service to a person with a particular disability. For example, if a person has walking problems, a service dog will provide assistance in walking. Therapy dogs are different, and they offer other types of service.

Therapy dogs offer affection and comfort. They can be in a hospital-type setting, or they can visit people that need their assistance. Unlike emotional support dogs, therapy dogs need to be trained.

Why is training necessary for a therapy dog?

The first reason a therapy dog needs to be trained is - the law. You can't just bring any dog to a hospital because their owner misses them; therapy dogs need to be a part of and certified by a reputable national cynology organization. For a dog to become a therapy dog, it needs to be trained and certified.

therapy dog in training

What dog can become a therapy dog?

When it comes to picking specific breeds, there are no restrictions on becoming a therapy dog. Dogs of all sizes can become therapy dogs. Still, there are some conditions they need to fulfill before they are promoted to this important job. It is important to know that the dog alone cannot become a therapy dog; their owners need to be a part of the team.

General conditions

A therapy dog's training needs to start from the beginning. Their owners should start training and socializing them from their puppyhood. It is a great idea for dogs to finish the Canine Good Citizen program, and there they will learn basic obedience. They need to be friendly and calm. They shouldn't get startled easily, and above all, they should have a stable character.

Conditions dogs need to fulfill

Suppose you want your dog to be tested and certified by the Alliance of therapy dogs. In that case, they should have no problems in obeying basic obedience commands. Those commands are:

  • Sit
  • Down
  • Heel
  • Retrieve
  • Ignore neutral dogs
  • Come
  • Gently take a treat or toy

The therapy dog training should be focused on these commands. This is basic obedience training, and all dog trainers should be able to teach your dog these things. If you are interested, you can even do it yourself.

If you want to learn more about obedience training, check out this article - Intro to obedience training.

Socialization conditions

Not only should a therapy dog be trained in obedience, but they also need to be properly socialized. Dogs should feel comfortable in different situations and unknown equipment. Some of the conditions dogs need to fulfill are:

  • Handling of nails and paws
  • Long hugs
  • Brushing
  • Grabbing tail
  • Several people touching them at once
  • Yelling
  • Sudden movements
  • Staring into their eyes
  • Grabbing scruff

Your dog will get their strength and confidence from you, so you must have an exceptional relationship with your dog. They will rely on their owners for stability and confidence. They are a part of the team, and they should count on their partner at all times. Dogs should also feel comfortable around things like medical equipment, new noises, loudspeakers, fire alarms, new scents, hallways, and crowds.

You can learn more about socialization here - Puppy socialization.

The human part of the therapy team

A dog alone can't be an effective therapy dog, and they need their owner with them. Dogs need to feel safe at all times, and their owner is the person that provides stability and comfort while the dog does its magic on patients. The owners need to go through therapy dog training as well, and they have to be trained in things like:

  • Leash handling
  • Infection prevention
  • Communication skills
  • Hospital, nursing home, police station policies and practices
  • The scope of the owner's role in each of those facilities
  • Proper hygiene for humans and dogs
  • Confidentiality
  • Stress reduction and conflict management

Training a therapy dog is a lengthy process that can be thoroughly enjoyable for the dog and their owner. There are different ways to do it, and some owners can even do it by themselves. However, the therapy dog certification is done by the Alliance of therapy dogs. It will require a practical and theoretical test.

Do you know how service dogs are trained? Check out this article - Service dog training.

Therapy dog certification

The ATD has a special written test the owners need to take before getting their dog certification. After they pass the test, an ATD Observer will accompany the owner and the dog in three separate visits to different facilities. There, they will watch your interaction between you, your dog, and the person in need of a therapy dog. If all goes well, the ATD Observer will give you a passing grade and allow your dog to become a certified therapy dog. 

World Dog Finder team

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