How to Train Your Dog to Be a Therapy Dog

P.S. You'll need some training, too!
By: Helen Anne Travis
Therapy dog with patient

Billie Smith understands the need for therapy dogs. As the executive director of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Smith helps manage 15,000-plus volunteers and it’s still not enough to handle all of the requests she gets from hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, airports and schools.

Organizations like the Alliance of Therapy Dogs know their therapy dog teams bring more than just a smile to the faces of their patients, customers and students. The presence of a therapy dog has been shown to decrease stress hormones, lower blood pressure and reduce feelings of anxiety, loneliness and isolation, says Mary Margaret Callahan, director of program development for Pet Partners.

“Doing therapy work with your dog is a win-win situation for everyone involved,” says Smith. You help people feel better, you get to spend quality time with your pet and your dog gets tons of attention and affection, she says.

“If you are a passionate pet parent and you have a wonderful animal, then therapy work might be the right path for you,” says Callahan.

Below, learn more about how to train your dog to be a therapy animal.

Would Your Pet Be a Good Therapy Dog?

Smith says the best kind of dogs for therapy work are “bomb-proof dogs,” happy-go-lucky pups who are not ruffled by much. They’re accepting of new people, places, smells and sounds, as well as other therapy dogs who might be working the same beat.

“What you want is an animal who thinks every time they walk in the room there’s a party being thrown in their honor,” says Callahan.

While the Alliance of Therapy Dogs has plenty of volunteers who are formally-trained pups (some are professional show dogs), Smith says there are also tons of “couch potatoes pups” who also work as therapy dogs. When it comes to this kind of work, there’s more emphasis on temperament than obedience, she says.

Therapy dog in front of building

“You want your dog to inspire confidence in the general public,” says Callahan. That means your pup understands commands like ‘sit,’ ‘down,’ ‘leave it’ and ‘stay.’” Your dog should come when called and has basic impulse control. She shouldn’t jump on people, can walk on a loose leash and is an appropriate vocalizer.

Therapy dogs also have to be comfortable with change. How will your dog react if a person carrying a bunch of balloons walks by her in the hallway? Has she ever seen a wheelchair before? Can she handle all the noises, smells and flooring in a hospital? You and your dog will need to have a strong enough bond that you can calm her down and inspire confidence if she gets spooked, says Callahan.

Training Your Dog for Therapy Work

Both Callahan and Smith say training your dog for therapy work is something you can do by yourself at home or with the help of a professional trainer.

“Every dog should go through basic obedience training, period,” says Smith. Regardless of whether they participate in therapy work, this will help a dog understand who’s in charge, give them a chance to socialize with other dogs in a safe environment and empower you to be the best pet parent possible.

Callahan says that while there are lots of Golden Retrievers and Labradors at Pet Partners, any breed can be a successful therapy dog.

“We have therapy Pit Bulls and German Shepherds who serve as therapy dogs,” she says. They are also ambassadors who alter the perspectives of those who give their breed a bad rap, she says.

“We encourage anyone who thinks they have an animal with the right temperament and skills to consider therapy work,” Callahan adds.

The Registration Process

Both organizations require potential volunteers and their dogs to participate in a team evaluation. Once registered, you and your dog will be insured under the organization’s liability insurance policy. Pet owners are also given access to a list of opportunities in their area and are trained on how to educate new facilities about the perks of therapy dog programs.

During the registration process, both you and your dog will be evaluated. You’ll be scored on your abilities as a handler, or as Callahan calls it, “the human end of the leash.”

Can you recognize your dog’s body language? Can you prevent her from reacting if someone pets her ears or another body part she hates to have touched? Can you help redirect the energy of an overeager young hospital patient in a positive manner? These are all things that organizations will look for.

Therapy dog with veteran

“It’s not like you just walk in the room, drop the leash and say, ‘let the magic begin,’” says Callahan. “There’s a lot of work that goes into making an interaction successful.”

There’s also the personality aspect. Handlers need to be comfortable making small talk with strangers, listening to their stories and dealing with the emotional aspect of working with people in hospitals and hospice care, if that’s where you choose to volunteer.

There’s also the time commitment. It’s not only a matter of showing up when you say you will, but keeping your dog groomed and up to date on the skills required to be a therapy dog.

“We get rusty if we don’t practice,” says Callahan. “You need to make sure you have the time to put into this. If you do, it’s an unbelievably rewarding experience and a great way to spend time with one of your best friends.”

Images via Andrea Nicklewics, Tuck Geerds and the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.