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Therapy dog visiting a sick woman in the hospital

What you need to know about therapy dogs

A therapy dog is a pet that has been highly trained, tested, and received certification through a recognized therapy dog organization. After the dog and his handler/owner are certified they may be invited to visit nursing homes, hospitals and other places to interact with the residents.

Sometimes the terms therapy dog and service/assistance dog are used interchangeably. This can cause confusion when the general public tries to differentiate the two.

The way we distinguish the two is that:

  • A therapy dog is one trained by the owner to work, on a volunteer basis, to benefit other people. For example, a therapy dog might “work” in a nursing home or hospital or a school. In many cases, a therapy dog will take a certification course and pass a test to assure his temperament is suited to being a therapy dog. The training may include not being startled by loud noises, not eating items dropped on the floor and being calm around strangers.
  • A service/assistant dog is typically trained by a professional service dog trainer to assist an individual in his or her daily life. A seeing eye dog, one who assists a deaf individual or a dog who provides mobility assistance, are some examples of service dogs.

Therapy dogs are not granted assistance to establishments the way a service/assistance dog is under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

How do I get my dog certified as a therapy dog?

The dog should be at least one year old, be current on vaccinations and have a health certificate from their veterinarian. A therapy dog should have basic obedience behaviors, come when called and be minimally or non-reactive to audible and visual stimuli.

Some of the testing a dog goes through to pass a therapy dog test and receive certification, while it varies by agency, is typically based on the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test. There are ten items that the AKC includes in the test:

1. Accepting a friendly stranger

2. Sitting politely for petting

3. Appearance and grooming

4. Walking on a loose lead

5. Walking through a crowd

6. Sit and down and stay, on command

7. Coming when called

8. How the dog reacts to other dogs

9. Reaction to distraction

10. Supervised separation

There are several therapy dog registries including: Therapy Dogs International, PetPartners, and Therapy Dogs Incorporated. Each of the organizations has its own criteria, evaluators, fees and rules that must be followed by the handler. A reputable therapy dog registry requires a dog and owner to pass a test before becoming certified. The reason for this test is to protect the public and anyone that comes in contact with the dog. The fee a dog owner pays to a therapy dog registry is used, in part, to provide liability insurance coverage to protect all parties in case of a dog bite or other accident.

Some facts about therapy dogs.

  • Therapy dogs were used as early as WWII when they visited recovering soldiers.
  • Nurse Elaine Smith established the first formal therapy dog program in 1976.
  • Strays and shelter dogs can be trained as therapy dogs, many have and do well.
  • The simple act of petting a dog can lower your risk of stroke, seizure and heart attack. They can help soothe patients and lower their stress and anxiety.

In Los Angeles, at Children’s Hospital, the Amerman Family Foundation Dog Therapy Program recently marked a milestone: Providing 365 consecutive days of dog therapy to CHLA patients, family and staff. The last time there was a day without a dog onsite was April 10, 2015. Over the past year there have been 107 therapy dogs and 117 volunteers who work with the dogs and more than 10,000 patient visits.

Hospitals understand the importance of “snuggles” and that is why so many pediatric facilities welcome therapy dogs. The young patients enjoy petting, playing with and simply sitting with therapy dogs.


Robbi Hess, award-winning author, is multi-petual: She shares her home with two Devon Rex kittens, three adult rescue cats, a mini poodle, a Goldendoodle, three lizards and two ferrets. When not caring for her pets, she is an editor, speaker, time management and productivity guru, content creator, social media manager and blogger. She writes at All Words MatterMy Divas Dish, and is the story editor and chief cat herder at Positively Woof.

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