Therapy Dog Training (Animal Assisted Therapy)

calvin is a certified therapy dog

How to Train Your Dog to Become a Therapy Animal

Therapy dog training is lots of fun. Once your dog becomes a certified therapy animal they’ll make so many people smile. There are lot of great therapy dog programs such as PetPartners, Therapy Dogs International (TDI), Love on a Leash, ect. These programs fall under the category of “Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)”.  One of the most heart warming things is hearing that your dog has made someone’s day…or month. Some dogs are able to get patients to speak after they haven’t uttered a word in months – they are natural healers and spread love to all. Spreading joy is the goal of every therapy dog and indicative of a job well done.  Therapy dogs help those who need them most and have a lasting impact on the people they visit.  Both our dogs are Therapy Dogs through the SF SPCA so we want to share everything you need to know to turn your pup into a certified healer. The world needs more therapy dogs!

What is a Therapy Dog? Is a Therapy Dog a Service Dog? 

As per Wikipedia, the definition of a therapy dog is as follows: “A therapy dog is a dog that might be trained to provide affection, comfort and love to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, and to people with anxiety disorders or autism. [Unlike service dogs], they are NOT covered or protected under the Federal Housing Act or Americans with Disabilities act. They also do NOT have public access rights with exception to the specific places they are visiting and working.” In short, therapy dogs have very important jobs, but they are not considered service animals and only have access rights in the facilities where they are doing their job.

What are the requirements for a therapy dog? What is the therapy dog certification process?

I want to say that therapy dogs are born, not made but the truth is that a certified therapy dog will be a mix of both. There are legal requirements and testing for dogs to start volunteering as Therapy Dogs. First of all, dogs are required to be at least 1 year old before their first visit.  Dogs will be dealing with a variety of people – the elderly, mentally ill, incarcerated, young children, terminally ill, immune compromised, so the therapy dog organization has very high liability for the dogs they accept into their programs. Dogs need to be able to handle any new sights and sounds. Organizations conduct a series of evaluations to ensure that your dog will be a good fit.

Temperament: Your dog’s natural temperament will be most important – therapy dogs can have absolutely no history of snapping at a human. None. Ever. End of story. Do they snap over resources like food? Do they growl at people in costumes? If a dog has ever snapped, there is no way to be sure they won’t do it again. The dogs need to be comfortable approaching new humans of every ethnicity, size, height, ect. They need to be ok with erratic movements and unpredictable human tendencies.  Additionally, they need to be comfortable being touched, hugged, and prodded without losing their cool. Your dog should LOVE human interaction no matter who reaches out to them.

Training: Temperament will be the most important evaluation factor but training is an additional component.  Most programs require passing the 10 part Canine Good Citizen Test especially if the dog is planning to visit hospitals or schools.  If your dog is able to successfully pass the CGC test, they’ll have mastered all the commands they need for therapy dog evaluations. This includes things like sit/stay, down/stay, loose leash walking, ignoring distractions, leave it ect.

therapy dog training includes testing such as the canine good citizen test

What was your Therapy Dog Evaluation Process?

Every organization will have a different process so below you will find how our organization handles evaluations.  Our dogs were certified through the SF SPCA but some organizations such as Therapy Dogs International do the entire process in one day.  Both our dogs passed the CGC test series before starting the program but our program only required the CGC test for specialized facilities and the children’s reading program. We knew we wanted to be able to volunteer at any facility so we passed the tests before starting the program.

We started by attending an orientation to learn more about the program, evaluation process, and testing.

Preliminary Evaluation for Therapy Dogs
Next, we went through a preliminary canine evaluation.  This included a few parts:

1. Reaction to holding of paws, ears, tail, restraining hugs, looming stares. Does your dog have any “sensitive spots”? (they should not).
2. Sit/stay, down/stay (in a later evaluation this will be testing as a 20ft stay)
3. Touch command
4. Leave it – dog is off leash and a high value treat is thrown at the dog. Dog must leave the treat via voice command without any contact from the handler.
5. Ensure the dog will voluntarily go up to the evaluators for petting without jumping up (evaluators try to rile up the dog so make sure your dog can handle that without losing his cool).

Training Series/Additional Evaluations for therapy dogs
After passing the preliminary evaluation, we started the training series, which included two more evaluations in a class setting with other dogs.  The evaluators wanted to see the dogs a few times to make sure that their good behavior was consistent. They retested the preliminary evaluation, made sure the dogs could work around other dogs, tested reactions to loud sounds (blow horn), and reaction to mobility equipment. The mobility equipment section included waving around canes, tapping crutches, and acting erratic. Additionally, they dropped the equipment to see the pup’s reactions and whether the dog would be able to recover quickly and still greet the patient after being caught off guard.

Mentored Visits
Before being officially certified, we practiced out into the field with our dog and a mentor. Our mentor watched us at a 2 different visits to ensure that the dog was ok with all types of environments.

Shadowed Visits
We shadowed others dogs in the program to see how other volunteers handle visits.

Therapy Dog Graduation!
Our graduation/final evaluation was a group visit at the nursing home with all the other dogs in the program.
therapy dog graduation

How do I Start Therapy Dog Training? Where Can I Find a Program Near Me?

Legally, Therapy Dogs are tested and evaluated through an organization. The organizations handle testing, evaluations, and insurances costs. Click here to find a list of the recognized Therapy Dog Organizations near you.

How can I prepare my dog to become a therapy dog?

Loud noises, unfamiliar sights, a variety of surfaces
A therapy dog should be desensitized to any unfamiliar things they may see or hear.  Luckily, you can prepare for this by making sure your pup is desensitized from an early age.  You can prepare them by exposing them to costumes, hats, glasses, grates, tile, gravel, carpet ect so they will be familiar with things they may encounter on their visits.  Desensitization will take time if your pup is wary, but can be successfully completed with patience. Repetition and positive reinforcement will help to desensitize.

Mobility Equipment
Therapy dogs MUST be comfortable around mobility equipment and will be tested on this. This includes walkers, canes, wheelchairs, crutches as well as the movement that these will have.  If an elderly man waves his cane in your dog’s face, how will the pup react? During testing, evaluators want to make sure the dog will happily come up to the evaluator even if they are using the equipment in a weird or crazy way. Borrow equipment from family and friends to practice familiarity with mobility equipment.

Leave It
Your pup will need a strong leave it command to pass these evaluations.  This is because food, pills, medical solutions will be all over the facilities you visit.  Sometimes patients may try to feed things to your dog that could make them sick. Your pup needs to be able to reliably respond to your command to stay safe.  Our organization tested leave it by walking towards Calvin (while he was off leash) and throwing a very high value treat towards him.  He was required to ignore the treat via voice command and stay in control (i.e still focused on the human). Practice makes perfect – practice in a variety of contexts until your dog gets it.  Can you recall your dog back to you without him snatching that treat?

No Jumping
A pup who cannot keep all 4 on the floor during exciting times will not pass the evaluation. If your pup is still young, help him out by tiring him before socializing with strangers. Jumping up can be a tough behavior to crack, especially since most of the times the dogs are just jumping because they are super friendly and would otherwise be the perfect therapy dogs!  We have some info here about how we taught Calvin to stop jumping up on strangers.

No Teeth
Pups love to mouth – chances are that if you play rough with your dog they’ll bring out their teeth even when they are older.  Even though this is generally harmless, if can be frightening to people who are not used to your dog.  It’s important to make sure your dog learns that it is not socially acceptable to mouth while they are being pet or riled up.  You can practice by riling your dog up and correcting them if they mouth at you to teach that teeth never belong on human skin even in a loving way.

Ignore/work around other dogs
Your dog should be able to coexist with other dogs – you’ll be with other dogs during training and potentially on some visits.  If your dog isn’t able to ignore the other dogs, they will not be able to help the humans!

Touch/go say hi command
We don’t let Calvin randomly go up to people on the street and say hi since some people don’t want dogs all up in their business. This will also be the care on visits – not all patients in the room want the dog to get too close to them. Because of this, we have taught him the “touch” and “go say hi / go get em” command.  This is essentially his release command letting him know that he can go and say hi to the person who is comfortable with dogs.

How can I make the therapy dog process better for my dog?

You know your dog better than anyone and will be your dog’s biggest advocate. You are entirely in control of the situation and can let people know if your dog has had enough.  You should be familiar with your dog’s signs – excessive yawning, lip licking, hair raising, ect.  If you are familiar with how your dog behaves when they have had enough, you need to end your visit before anything gets out of hand.  This is totally ok! Everyone has an off day from time to time but it is up to you to make sure that your dog’s off day does not escalate into a career ending situation. End your visit if you sense your dog is getting uncomfortable.

What was the hardest part of becoming a therapy dog?

Calvin: Every dog is different and has different challenges.  For Calvin, we weren’t worried about any of the obedience parts of the evaluations as he had already aced the CGC test months earlier – this will be different for EVERYONE so try not to compare your pup to others (this is hard, I know!).  Calvin’s biggest challenge is harnessing his extra energy – he was 1.5 yrs old…so we were most concerned that he wouldn’t be able to settle quickly enough.  We think that his really strong obedience plus making sure to exercise him was the best way to set him up for success. He was able to immediately relax for all his evaluations and blew us away!

Samson: With Samson, the biggest question mark during evaluations was that we weren’t sure if he would be interested in getting attention from other humans. We knew that his mellowness & obedience would be great for any type of facility, but we weren’t sure if he would actually enjoy the job of giving other people attention. Samson is generally focused only on me, so we worked on teaching a “go say hi” command as a release word to go and greet people around him. Turns out, Samson is a natural healer and was more than happy to lend a paw. Samson was fully trained and evaluated as a Therapy Dog just 2 weeks after his 1st birthday and his first official visit went perfectly. Again, you know your dog best so you will be able to set them up for success in whatever way works best for them.


Free hugs for all!
-Your Pal Cal
calvin the therapy dog after his training

Leave a Reply