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Learn About Pet Therapy Certification for your Dog

Training your dog or cat to become a certified therapy pet is a wonderful way to bond and spend quality time together. It’s also a great way to share your dog’s goofy smile and wagging tail or your cat’s purrs with people of all ages in your community whose lives can be instantly brightened by a dose of furry friendliness. Therapy dogs are dispensers of unconditional love and affection. But before considering therapy pet certification, your dog will need to undergo basic training so that she has the good manners and social skills required for this type of volunteer work. Once your dog is certified, she will be able to visit people in hospitals and assisted living facilities, get involved in reading programs at schools and libraries or visit victims of trauma or weather-related disasters.

There is a big difference between a therapy dog and a service dog. A service dog must undergo between 18 months and two years of very specialized task training that enables them to assist people with physical disabilities. A trained service dog is then paired with a person and together they undergo further training so that they can become a lifelong team.

How to Know if You Have a Great Therapy Dog

Before you consider therapy pet certification, it’s important to determine if your dog has the personality and innate characteristics essential for volunteer work.

Your dog must love people. And it’s important to ascertain whether she prefers being around kids or the elderly. She will need to be very tolerant and comfortable in any surrounding.

Cats with the right temperament can make great therapy pets, too. A therapy cat must be a lap cat, with a placid yet affectionate disposition, one who is comfortable meeting and interacting with new people and accepting of sights and sounds not usual in her home environment. She must enjoy traveling by car and possibly walking on a leash.

In general, both therapy dogs and cats need to be tolerant of petting that can be quite rough at times, as well as of being poked and pulled a bit. It’s not that the people being visited are trying to treat her roughly, but often children have to be shown how to pet properly, while others are too frail or disabled to give a gentle caress.

The person on the other end of the leash is equally important to consider – that’s you! You have to be honest with yourself and make a commitment you can adhere to. Make sure you have the time to devote to an on-going relationship, as people get very used to being visited by a particular pet therapy team.

Whether you plan to devote your time to visiting kids or the elderly, it can be very emotional, and often draining work. And your pet will pick up on your feelings. So be sure you are up for the undertaking.

Some organizations also accept kids ages 10 and older into their training programs. So if you have a son or daughter who is very bonded with a particular pet in the household, you may want to consider making it a family affair.

If you are not sure how your pet will react to visiting strangers, start with visits to family and friends and gauge her reaction to being in different environments. Be sure to take treats along!

How to Become a Certified Therapy Dog

Puppy and adult dog training programs will ensure your dog has great social skills and not only knows basic cues and behaviors but can deal with distractions caused by pets, people, objects, noises, and smells and is familiar with working in different surroundings. Ultimately, it’s a good idea to sign up for a training class to acquire the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen (AKC CGC) certificate. This is nationally recognized as a high standard of dog behavior and the stepping-stone to prepare for therapy dog training.

Cats do not require any certifications. However, if your feline is clicker-trained to offer some simple tricks such as shaking paws or giving a high five, she will be a huge success as a therapy pet.

Next, you will need to contact an organization to acquire your pet therapy certification. In some cases, you can apply online. Others require hands-on testing to put your dog through her paces.

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

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

A therapy dog also needs to be current on all vaccines required by the local laws, have a negative fecal test every 12 months and always be clean and well-groomed.

The American Kennel Club’s website lists several national organizations as well as a comprehensive alphabetical list of therapy groups across the country. Many of them, although canine-centric, work with cats, too. While the AKC doesn’t have their own therapy dog training program, they recognize the work done by the groups listed and will defer 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.

Pet therapy groups will also pair you up with the right facilities, including hospitals, hospices, classrooms and children’s homes. Volunteers are also covered by the organization’s liability insurance. It’s not advisable to work independently without such coverage.

Pet therapy is very rewarding volunteer work. You are in the business of dispensing doggie smiles, wagging tails and feline purrs. Research shows that pets definitely have a positive impact on an ill or traumatized person’s well-being. So you are making a difference. It offers great payback for your pet too in the form of wonderful mental and physical stimulation – and treats for a job well done!