How to Train Therapy Dogs

Dogs don't need to attend medical school to become therapists.

Dogs don't need to attend medical school to become therapists.

Wet noses, wagging tails and warm hearts are lately making the rounds in hospitals, hospices and nursing homes. Therapy dogs lift the spirits of people in need of comfort, licking away their woes and emanating unconditional love. Training a therapy dog will enrich your life and the lives of others.

Assess whether your dog has the qualities of a good therapy dog. Regardless of how well-behaved your dog may be, it all boils down to genetic disposition: A calm demeanor, friendliness toward people, tolerance of other dogs, nerves of steel and a good level of confidence are some must-have qualities a therapy dog candidate should have. "A therapy dog is born not made," according to Therapy Dogs International, an organization that regulates, tests and registers therapy dogs.

Socialize your puppy or dog as much as you can. If you own a puppy, make sure he gets to meet people of different ages, races and sizes during his critical stages of development.Your puppy should meet at least 100 different people before he is 3 months old, says veterinarian, animal behaviorist and dog trainer Ian Dunbar. Make sure your puppy or dog gets used to tolerating hugs, kisses, grooming and any other forms of attention through positive experiences.

Train your dog to respond to commands despite distractions. While your dog can sit or stay in your boring back yard, can he do the same around other dogs, people and big distractions? Therapy dogs are often exposed to ostensibly scary, noisy stimuli such as wheelchairs, walking aids and beeping machines, as well as other therapy dogs. Your dog will need to be calm as can be despite all these distractions. Pulling on the leash, jumping on people and other boisterous behaviors are not acceptable when dealing with patients, some of whom may be mentally or physically unable to cope with an unruly dog.

Prepare your dog for the Canine Good Citizen Program. This test developed by the American Kennel Club is often a prerequisite for some therapy dog certification programs.The test consists of a variety of real-life situations your dog must encounter successfully. In order to pass this test, your dog must be friendly toward people and tolerant of other dogs. He must have a reliable response to the sit, stay, down and recall commands. This test is a good start toward your dog's career as a therapist. Indeed, Therapy Dogs International considers the Canine Good Citizen test an important key component of its therapy dog evaluation program.

Inquire about getting your dog certified and registered as a therapy dog. By getting your dog certified, you provide assurance that Rover is a safe, healthy dog with a sound temperament. In-person or online therapy dog handler courses and workshops are offered by Delta Society. After preparing for the test, the animal and handler team is tested by an experienced evaluation team. Delta Society, Therapy Dogs Incorporated and Therapy Dogs International are organizations that offer programs to certify and register therapy dogs.

Start on-the-job training. Most therapy dog training programs will supervise and evaluate your very first visits in the field. They will assess your skills as a handler and determine your general level of preparation as a team. Some programs will not provide membership until you pass this handling portion satisfactorily.

Teach your dog some cute tricks. While therapy dogs make many people smile, a dog with some tricks up his sleeve will surely win over many more. You can teach your dog to shake hands, give a high five, sit pretty or roll over. While training a therapy dog may look like a lot of work, you ultimately get back much more than you give once you see the amount of joy and comfort your dog is capable of giving to those who need them.


  • Any breed of dog is welcome to become a therapy dog, including mixed-breed dogs.
  • Most therapy dog organizations have age limitations on therapy dogs. Check with organizations directly to confirm.
  • Ask if you can attend a therapy dog visit without taking your dog along before taking the plunge towards therapy dog training.
  • Make sure your dog is healthy, well-groomed and up-to-date on vaccinations when getting certified.
  • Besides the national therapy dog groups, some local groups may certify therapy dogs in some cities.


  • Therapy dogs should not be confused with service dogs. Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs do not wear vests when training or working. Therapy dogs are not granted the same rights as service dogs when it comes to access to public places.
  • Be aware that fraudulent companies purporting to offer certification exist.

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About the Author

Adrienne Farricelli has been writing for magazines, books and online publications since 2005. She specializes in canine topics, previously working for the American Animal Hospital Association and receiving certification from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. Her articles have appeared in "USA Today," "The APDT Chronicle of the Dog" and "Every Dog Magazine." She also contributed a chapter in the book " Puppy Socialization - An Insider's Guide to Dog Behavioral Fitness" by Caryl Wolff.

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