Therapy Dogs

By Sharon Naylor

April 24, 2014 4 min read

Hospitals, cancer treatment facilities, nursing homes and rehabs can be scary and stressful, but everything changes when therapy dogs enter the room. Lifting the spirits of patients and the hardworking staff, they inspire feelings of well-being, comfort, connection and calmness, which is why medical centers welcome the presence of these furry friends and their friendly handlers.

There are two main types of services therapy dogs offer: animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities. AAT uses companion animals as part of patients' therapies, e.g., improving manual dexterity or muscle function through petting. AAA connects people who are withdrawn with dogs to encourage communication and connection.

The American Kennel Club says that since the 1980s, there have been significant advances in the field of animal-assisted therapy and the use of therapy dogs. This finding has inspired people nationwide to volunteer their dogs and themselves, as the dogs' accredited handlers. The AKC website lists national and regional registration/certification organizations in each state where you can pursue training, testing and licensing.

The first step in deciding if dogs can be therapy dogs is assessing their demeanor. The Animal Health Foundation lists the following characteristics desired of a therapy dog candidate:


--Predictable, reliable and controllable.

--People-oriented and sociable.

--Comfortable being touched, at times awkwardly.

--Comfortable being crowded by a group of people.

--Able to cope with stressful situations.

--Have a nonthreatening or neutral body posture and relaxed face.

All dog breeds can be licensed as therapy dogs. But organizations have their own requirements as to the therapy dogs' ages. Older dogs are welcome for consideration, since they may be more relaxed than an excitable puppy. And dogs with disabilities can also be trained and accredited, since they may provide extra inspiration to people with disabilities.

You, too, will be assessed by the therapy dog testing association. The Animal Health Foundation says the ideal human handler is:


--Comfortable in health care settings.

--Confident, natural and relaxed.

--Aware of animal behaviors and responses.


--A good caretaker of the animal's well-being.

--One who addresses the dog in a gentle, friendly tone.

--Gentle with the dog, e.g., not jerking the leash.

When testers look at dog/handler teams during the testing process, they're looking for:

--How the dog and handler relate to each other.

--How the dog and handler relate to others.

--How the dog and handler interact in a hospital environment.

Since you might bring your therapy dog into a large waiting room or rehab center where other dogs and handlers are present, it's essential your dog have great socialization skills and feel comfortable with dogs he or she doesn't know.

To begin the process of licensing your dog as a therapy dog, contact your local hospitals, treatment centers and nursing homes to ask which therapy dog associations they use. Research those associations' guidelines for classes, testing, fees and licensing. It's also smart to check into any ongoing requirements, such as annual testing and annual veterinary checkups, so you know how labor-intensive this journey will be for you.

Soon, your dog might make a very big difference in the stress levels of hospital patients or nursing home residents, and perhaps bring a smile to the face of a child who's enduring a long battle with an illness. Your pet may have brought your family years of happiness and comfort, and now, your dog can light up the lives of others. You can share in the warm feeling of doing good in the world.

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