Working side-by-side with your dog helping children in stressful situations, patients in long-term care facilities, hospice patients and people in crisis is an experience you will cherish. You and your dog will benefit from the time spent bonding. It's relatively easy to become certified.
Assessing Your Dog
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Before embarking on a journey towards therapy dog certification, you must be honest with yourself when assessing your dog's suitability for working with people. Your dog may be the perfect angel around you, but if he doesn't possess certain qualifications, you are wasting your time and setting yourself up for disappointment. Your dog should have a gentle nature, sweet temperament and happy-go-lucky attitude. He should seek out interactions and not shy away when meeting new people. He must be mellow around children as well as other dogs, cats, squirrels and anything else that would normally trigger a prey drive.
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Your dog must be at least a year old and able to reliably follow the commands to sit, stay, down, come, heel and leave it. This means she must sit when asked, stay in one position for about 30 seconds, come when called, walk on a loose lead by your side without pulling and walk by a toy or treat on the ground when you tell her to "leave it." She must also walk by a strange dog, called the "neutral dog" during the test, without attempting to play or fight with the other dog.
There are two well-known national organizations that administer the test for your dog to become a certified therapy dog. Pet Partners, formerly called the Delta Society (deltasociety.org) and Therapy Dog International (tdi-dog.org) are the two major therapy dog training and evaluating agencies. Once your dog has been through basic training, you will be required to complete a course to familiarize yourself with the organization's policies, expectations and regulations. Once you have completed the course, you will be scheduled for a test with a local evaluator. If you pass, you will be given a picture ID card and automatically covered by a $1 million liability insurance policy in the event someone is injured as a result of your visit.
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A number of regional and local certifying agencies have cropped up over the years and are operating on a local level. For example, there may be a certifying agency in your state, county or region that is not affiliated with one of the two major organizations but has started a local group. However, many facilities require visiting therapy dogs to have liability insurance, which these smaller groups may not provide. The reputation of the two national groups precede them and certification with them is highly recognized and preferred. Another thing to consider is your reasons for wanting to have your dog certified. A certified therapy dog does not enjoy the privileges of protection under the Americans With Disabilities act that allows service dogs into places dogs usually cannot go. Your certified therapy dog cannot go into stores, restaurants or in the cabin on planes, with certain exceptions.
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.