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Therapy Dog Training and Certification: What You Need to Know

Therapy Dog Training and Certification: What You Need to Know

Training your dog to become a certified therapy dog is a wonderful way to bond and spend quality time together. Therapy dogs are dispensers of unconditional love and affection.

But first, your dog will need to undergo basic training so that they have the good manners, social skills and exposure to the different types of settings required for this type of volunteer work.

Therapy dogs are different from service dogs. “A service dog is a dog that has been trained to perform specific tasks to assist a person with a disability,” says Dr. Mary R. Burch, a certified applied animal behaviorist and AKC Family Dog director. “A therapy dog is a dog who volunteers with their pet parent to provide comfort and support to people in settings such as schools, hospitals and assisted living facilities.”

Once a therapy dog achieves certification, they may be allowed on airplanes and public transportation as emotional support animals. However, check in with transportation officials in advance of traveling to confirm whether a therapy dog can travel.

How to train a therapy dog

dog therapy training

If you’re wondering how to make your dog a therapy dog, the first step is to undergo a basic therapy dog training program.

“There are specific organizations that have training available, as well as private trainers,” says Lina Eklöf, manager, pet services, dog training education at Petco. “It is important to keep in mind when going with a private trainer, that they have the knowledge and skills to provide therapy-work training.”

One of the first places to start with therapy dog certification is to have your dog take the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test, which is offered through Petco training programs.

“The AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test is a test of basic training,” says Burch. “The CGC test covers the good manners that every dog should have, including coming when called, sit, down, stay and reacting appropriately to friendly strangers and other dogs.”

The Canine Good Citizen test is nationally recognized as a high standard of dog behavior and the stepping stone to prepare for therapy dog training.

Therapy dog certification

After achieving a CGC certification, your next step will be to contact an organization to acquire your pet’s pet therapy certification. In some cases, you can apply online. Others require hands-on testing to put your dog through their paces.

“Therapy dog certification ensures that both dogs and handlers are well-trained, and it reduces the liability to facilities,” says Burch.

A typical pet therapy test for your dog’s certification will observe the following:

  • How your dog reacts around other dogs
  • How well your dog listens to you
  • If your dog allows strangers to touch and handle them
  • If your dog avoids jumping on people when interacting
  • If your dog walks on a leash without pulling
  • If your dog tolerates strange noises and smells
  • If your dog is calm during petting
  • If your dog is okay with people walking unsteadily

“It is of vital importance to set dogs up to be successful to work in any type of setting, with a variety of people,” says Eklöf. “Not all dogs can make good therapy dogs. The socialization aspect of training a dog to be comfortable with and in a variety of settings needs to be extensive.”

The American Kennel Club lists several national organizations as well as a comprehensive alphabetical list of therapy groups across the country. While the AKC doesn’t have their own therapy-dog training program, they recognize the work done by the groups listed and will confer a special AKC Therapy Dog title on dogs certified by these groups. It’s a nice recognition of the work you and your pet have achieved together.

To maintain therapy dog certification, your pet needs to be current on all vaccinations that are required by local laws and have a negative fecal test every 12 months. Therapy dogs should always be clean and well-groomed, too.

How to make your dog a therapy dog

Once your dog achieves therapy dog certification, you can put your dog’s training and special skills to work in different settings.

dog walking outdoors

“There are a variety of possibilities,” says Eklöf. “These include schools, hospitals, airports, conferences, and disaster-relief areas.”

Therapy dogs are also sometimes used in courtrooms to help children open up, says Burch. “Children who have been abused or witnessed a crime are often afraid to talk to adults,” she says. “However, they will talk to a patient therapy dog so that officers of the court can hear their stories.”

Pet therapy groups and organizations will pair you up with the right facilities and volunteer organizations. Volunteers are covered by the organization’s liability insurance. It’s not advisable to work independently without such coverage.

Pet therapy is rewarding volunteer work for all humans involved, but it offers great payback for your pet, too. Pets receive mental and physical stimulation while helping others. It’s a win-win.

To prepare your dog for therapy dog training, contact Petco to get started on their beginning dog training classes today.