How To Get A Therapy Dog | The Full Process & Requirements

Therapy Dogs

Dogs bring joy to people around the world every day. People of all ages can enjoy playing or simply spending time with a loved dog. It is difficult to put into words, but there is a bond between humans and dogs that is like no other. There have been numerous studies on the subject, and many researchers believe that the love these two species share is the result of similarities in social behavior. After all, almost 40% of dog owners see their pet as a part of the family and don’t actively think of their dog as an entirely different species. This is a testament to the impact that dogs can have on human lives.

Furthermore, the companionship of a dog is, in a certain sense, preferable to the companionship of another human. People can be complicated, and it is not always easy or even possible to maintain strong, stress-free relationships. This is not a problem with dogs. In essence, human-dog relationships are like a less complicated, more stable relationship between humans. As a result, many people who need stress-free companionship turn to their pets.

In some cases, however, it is about more than just companionship. For people suffering from the loss of a loved one, mental health issues, disabilities, or similar impairments, a dog is more than just a friend. A therapy dog can be a life-saving part of any treatment plan.

What Is A Therapy Dog?

To put it simply, a therapy dog is any dog that meets certain criteria required to provide psychological and emotional support to an individual. However, by this definition, many dogs would probably qualify. Many people adopt dogs for this very purpose: to provide emotional support and companionship. In reality, therapy dogs are used for specific intervention treatments for those suffering any kind of mental pain or debilitation. 

Therapy dogs can be used for a variety of circumstances. For example, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and hospice care facilities often use therapy dogs to combat loneliness and depression among the residents. When children (or adults) suffer the loss of a close family member, therapy dogs are a great way to encourage healing and help the individual cope with the emotional trauma. 

It is important to note that there are different kinds of therapy dogs that all serve different purposes. Generally, therapy dogs can be divided into three categories:

  • Therapeutic Visitation Dogs – This is the most common type of therapy dog. These pets and their owners visit hospitals, mental health facilities, and other healthcare centers to prevent patients from feeling lonely, disconnected, or hopeless.
  • Animal Assisted Therapy Dog – This type of therapy dog is generally reserved for rehabilitation clinics. Under the guidance of a trained physiotherapist, these dogs help patients regain mobility through various motor-control activities.
  • Facility Therapy Dog – These dogs are often used exclusively in elderly care facilities to alert staff of any issues with the patients. They also provide companionship to the residents, many of whom do not have any living friends or relatives outside of the facility.

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the designation of therapy dogs, especially in relation to emotional support dogs and service dogs. Let’s breakdown the differences so that you have a better understanding of the legal terms, services, and benefits of each.

Therapy Dog vs. Service Dog vs. Emotional Support Dog

Generally speaking, therapy animals are not protected under U.S. law. Emotional support animals have limited protections, and service dogs have extensive legal protections. Despite these varied differences, U.S. laws define therapy animals, service animals, and emotional support animals in the following ways:

  • Therapy Animal – According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), the term therapy animal’ refers to a “goal-directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. Animal-assisted therapy is provided in a variety of settings, and may be group or individual in nature.
  • Service Animal – According to the AVMA and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The crime deterrent effects of an animal’s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.
  • Emotional Support Animal – According to the AVMA, the ADA, and the Fair Housing Act (FHA), “an emotional support animal (ESA) may be an animal of any species, the use of which is supported by a qualified physician, psychiatrist or other mental health professional based upon a disability-related need. An ESA does not have to be trained to perform any particular task. ESAs do not qualify as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but they may be permitted as reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities under the Fair Housing Act. The Air Carrier Access Act provides specific allowances for ESAs traveling on airlines, though documentation may need to be provided.

Though the legal definitions are very specific, these terms are often used interchangeably. This is made more confusing because therapy dogs and emotional support dogs provide very similar services to patients and owners, albeit in different settings and for different periods of time. 

What Are The Requirements?

As stated above, dogs must meet certain criteria to qualify as therapy animals. Additionally, while anyone can utilize the services of a therapy dog, they are generally reserved for patients at a healthcare or rehabilitation facility. Therapy dogs are privately owned, but they must undergo a screening process to ensure that they are a good fit for patients. A registered therapy dog will need to meet the following criteria:

  • Temperament – Therapy dogs must be well-tempered. This means that they are not quick to anger, and do not get stressed out easily. They should enjoy being touched, and not react aggressively if a patient mishandles them. While some of these behaviors can be trained, dogs will need to be inherently calm to some degree.
  • Shedding – Therapy dogs should not shed excessively. Shedding can be a major problem for people with allergies, and it creates a mess for hospital or clinic staff to clean up. Therapy dogs exist to brighten people’s day, not cause more problems.
  • Social – Therapy dogs MUST be social and friendly. This is perhaps the most important requirement, as they will need to cheer people up when they need it the most. However, dogs that are overly energetic can be too rough with certain patients (especially the elderly), so therapy dogs must be social, but not overly-enthusiastic. 
  • Adapting – Therapy dogs will need to adapt to various environments. Sometimes they may need to provide therapy while there is a lot of noise going on, and other times they may need to help patients in cramped living spaces. In any case, they will need to be comfortable, no matter the setting. A dog that is uncomfortable might become shy or even aggressive, which could cause unnecessary harm to patients.

What Is The Process?

If you would like to own a therapy dog, the process is relatively simple. In short, you will need to adopt a dog, train them, and then register them with a qualified organization (like usserviceanimals.org). The following guideline will help break down each of these steps:

Step 1: Adopt

The first and most important step for owning a therapy dog is choosing which one to adopt. You will want to do your research, as certain breeds are better suited for therapy services than others (like golden retrievers and labradors, to name a few). You can also consult professional dog trainers and veterinary professionals to get advice on choosing the best dog for the job. 

However, you should not just worry about the breed, because this is not a sure indication of a dog’s personality, behavior, or temperament. For example, you might find a golden retriever that is not very sociable and does not like to be touched (even though this is generally not the case), while you could find a breed that is not generally associated with therapy work, like a rottweiler or pit bull, that is perfectly suited to cheer up patients. At the end of the day, it will come down to the individual dog.

So, once you have done your homework on breeds and traits to look out for, you will need to visit a shelter in your area. We always recommend adopting dogs, rather than buying from a breeder. Shelter dogs are often some of the most loving, friendly animals you can find. While dogs can become therapy animals at any age, it is much easier to train dogs if you adopt them as puppies. That said, older dogs can be just as loving and obedient as the younger ones.

When you have found a dog that you think meets the necessary criteria, be sure to spend time with him or her in order to play, relax, and observe their behavior and temperament. It’s pretty easy to tell if a dog is well-suited for therapy sessions. If they can cheer you up, they can probably cheer up a patient, too!

Step 2: Train

Once you have chosen a dog to take home, you will need to begin the training process as soon as possible. While there are various methods for training dogs, we recommend that you consult a professional. Many dog owners prefer to do the training themselves, but getting advice from people who train animals for a living can save you time and help ensure that your dog is ready to see patients.

In general, you will want to make sure that your dog exhibits certain positive behaviors and avoids negative ones. For example, when you go to register your dog, they will look for behaviors that are ill-suited for therapy work. Dogs that like to jump on people, bark excessively, or chew on things will not qualify. Additionally, dogs that are overly shy and do not like to approach people will not make the cut either.

Therefore, you will need to make sure that your dog exhibits the following traits:

  • Friendly
  • Obedient
  • Quiet
  • Unaggressive
  • Outgoing
  • Gentle
  • Relaxed (not easily startled)

Step 3: Register

Most therapy dog certification organizations require dogs to be at least one year old, and fully updated on all vaccines and shots. You will need to provide documentation from your veterinarian regarding your dog’s age and medical history.

When you think your dog is ready to be a therapy animal, you must register them as such. This requires a certification test. During this test, your dog will need to show the right qualities for therapy work. If they cannot, the testing organization will ask that you continue to train them until they can meet the requirements.

It is also important to note that your dog will not be the only one tested when you go to register. Your abilities as a dog handler will be put to the test as well. If you cannot show that your dog follows your commands and that you know how to properly manage your pet in a therapeutic setting, your dog will not be certified.

The American Kennel Club (AKC) recommends that dogs pass the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test prior to registration. According to the AKC, this exam focuses on 10 key traits:

  • Test 1: Accepting a Friendly Stranger. The dog will allow a friendly stranger to approach and speak to the handler (the dog owner) in a natural, everyday situation.
  • Test 2: Sit Politely for Petting. The dog will allow a friendly stranger to pet it while it is out with the handler.
  • Test 3: Appearance and Grooming. The dog will permit someone to check its ears and front feet, as a groomer or veterinarian would do.
  • Test 4: Out for a Walk (walking on a loose lead). Following the evaluator’s instructions, the dog will walk on a loose lead (with the handler/owner).
  • Test 5: Walking Through a Crowd. The dog will walk through a small crowd of pedestrians, passing in close proximity to at least three people.
  • Test 6: Sit and Down on Command and Stay in Place. The dog must demonstrate sit AND down on command, then the owner chooses the position for leaving the dog in the stay.
  • Test 7: Coming When Called.  The dog will come when called by the handler (from 10 feet away on leash).
  • Test 8: Reaction to Another Dog. The dog will behave politely around other dogs. Two handlers and their dogs approach each other from a distance of about 20 feet, stop, shake hands and exchange pleasantries.
  • Test 9: Reaction to Distractions. The evaluator will select and present two distractions such as dropping a chair, etc.
  • Test 10: Supervised Separation. This test demonstrates that your dog can be left with a trusted person. The evaluator will hold your dog’s leash while you go out of sight for three minutes.”

If your dog can pass the CGC test, there is a very good chance that they will be approved as a therapy dog. However, once your dog is registered and certified, it is still best to proceed with caution. Some animals may pass with flying colors, but still be unprepared to deal with patients in a new environment. It is recommended that you test the waters with friends or family members before taking your dog to more formal therapy sessions at a healthcare facility.

Owning A Therapy Dog

Owning a therapy dog can be a deeply rewarding experience, but it can also be a big responsibility for pet owners. To a certain degree, the happiness and well-being of patients will depend on you and your pet, so you will want to make sure that you are providing the best possible animal-assisted therapy. This means keeping your dog up-to-date on vaccines and getting regular check-ups at the vet.

It also means continually reinforcing good behaviors with your dog, whether you are at home or out in public. It is very easy for owners to start cutting corners and allowing their pets to get away with bad behavior over time. However, if the dog learns that it can get away with these behaviors, they may exhibit them during a therapy session, which could cause great emotional or psychological harm to the patients your animal is meant to help.

Therefore, we recommend that you only adopt and register a therapy dog if you are willing to take on the training responsibility for the long haul.

Owning An Emotional Support Dog

As previously stated, many people confuse “therapy dogs” and “emotional support dogs.” This is because, technically, a dog can be both. A dog can provide emotional support for its owner, while also providing therapy for patients in a healthcare facility. However, the process of registering an emotional support dog is different. Additionally, there are certain legally-recognized benefits related to emotional support animal ownership.

How To Get An Emotional Support Dog

First off, it is important to remember that emotional support animals are recognized by the government for their ability to support a person suffering from a diagnosed illness or disorder. This means that you will need a bit more documentation than is required for a therapy dog. 

Before you consider adopting a new dog or attempting to register your existing pet as an emotional support dog, you will need to speak with your mental healthcare provider. Once you and your doctor determine that you need an emotional support dog, your doctor must write an ESA letter confirming this need. 

Generally, licensed healthcare professionals will evaluate your needs based on requirements set out in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Only people with a legitimate need for emotional and psychological support can be given ESA approval.

If your doctor determines that you do have a need for an emotional support dog and provides you with the letter, then you are finished. You do not need to register your animal. 

Emotional support dogs have several benefits that therapy dogs do not. For example, under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), landlords are not allowed to turn away emotional support dogs or charge a “pet fee” for having one. Also, airlines are legally required to allow emotional support dogs in the cabin of the airplane with their owner.

Learn More About Therapy Dogs

Getting a therapy dog is a big decision. You will need to make sure that your dog is well-trained and able to provide emotional support to people facing disease, physical impairments, or mental health problems. This can be taxing on both the owner and the dog. Therefore, you should only pursue owning a therapy dog if you are ready for the commitment.

Alternatively, if you think that you need an emotional support dog, or would like to have your dog legally recognized as an emotional support dog, you must get the approval of a licensed healthcare professional.

Do you need to register your therapy dog? Are you seeking more information about obtaining an ESA letter from your healthcare provider? No matter your needs, we are here to help. Please visit usserviceanimals.org for more information!