training a therapy dog

Training A Therapy Dog – The Ultimate Guide

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Therapy Dogs

You might be wondering about training a therapy dog. How hard is it, and what goes into it? We will discuss it all here.

While therapy dogs aren’t specially trained in the same way as service dogs, (i.e. for a specific person, and to do specific tasks) they do need to be trained, certified, and registered. This needs to be done by a reputable national organization. 

Certification is the final step in the process. Other parts of the process include a temperament assessment, therapy dog training, and a few more things.

training a therapy dog

How Can Therapy Dogs Help Humans?

Therapy dogs are a special kind of dog, different from emotional support dogs and service dogs. Therapy dogs can help us humans in the following ways:

  • Offer relief to people who are experiencing anxiety
  • Provide or offer comfort to people who are alone, lonely, or grieving
  • Give affection for people who are in institutions such as hospitals, schools, nursing homes, libraries, disasters; anywhere the dog could be of benefit to humans under any kind of stress (which… I mean, who isn’t nowadays?)
therapy dog benefits for humans

Benefits For Humans

  • People who are around a therapy dog may see improvements in blood pressure and heart rate
  • Therapy dogs can be helpful in reducing anxiety
  • Spending time with the dogs might help to increase levels of endorphins and other ‘feel good’ chemicals

Therapy dogs provide comfort and affection to multiple people in a variety of settings.

Therapy Dogs Are Not Service Dogs

A therapy dog is not a service dog.

Service dogs are specifically trained for one person’s unique needs. Read more: The Best Service Dog Breeds And How To Choose One.

Service dogs receive full public access rights under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

Therapy dogs (while just as cool) don’t have the same rights.

service dog vs therapy dog

Therapy Dogs Are Not Emotional Support Dogs

A therapy dog is also not an emotional support dog. Read more: What Is An Emotional Support Dog?

Emotional support dogs don’t need special training.

However, they do require a prescription from a health professional. And, they are used primarily by one person, for the benefit of that person only.

So What Is A Therapy Dog?

A therapy dog is someone’s pet. But it’s so much more. It’s a dog that is very good with humans and enjoys spending time in different settings with different people.

The owner of the dog enjoys the process of helping others.

By sharing their wonderful dog with other people, and seeing how it helps improve people’s day (if even just to make them smile) it gives the handler a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Giving back to the community, or simply helping other people, can help the handler’s life just as much as the people experiencing the therapy dog.

But yes, you can’t necessarily just take any dog into those above mentioned settings.

They do need to be trained as a therapy dog if they’re going to act as one. Therapy dogs are not trained to the same degree as service dogs.

But they are just as important. These are not better or worse; just different.

therapy dog candidate

Training A Therapy Dog: Elements Of A Good Therapy Dog Candidate

Just because a dog seems like a sweetheart at home, doesn’t mean they’ll make a good therapy dog. Some dogs just don’t want to go to work! Just something to think about when training a therapy dog.

Although, most dogs are very excited at the thought of having a job and are super willing. Let’s discuss some of the elements that are needed for a good therapy dog candidate.

  • Therapy dogs must be adult dogs. In other words, dogs under one year old are not normally accepted into therapy dog training programs
  • Most therapy dogs in training must be able to pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test, or a test very similar to it. This ensures the dog is well behaved and has great manners for dealing with a wide variety of different people, including small children
  • A naturally social temperament is helpful, since that is what the job is all about. Does the dog enjoy attention from multiple people, not just their owner?
  • The dog must want the job. This may sound strange, but some dogs just don’t want to go to work
  • Dogs must not be too young or too young-at-heart. In other words, they need a certain kind of calm, and can’t be ‘too bouncy’
  • Must be calm, friendly, and enjoy interactions with strangers
  • Dogs must be healthy and well-groomed, with regular wellness checkups
  • The dog must easily adapt to different situations, different levels of noise, different places, different smells, and different equipment
  • The age or breed of the dog doesn’t really matter, as long as they are able to pass the Canine Good Citizen Test (or similar)

The Steps To Training A Therapy Dog

training a therapy dog

There are a few options for training a therapy dog.

  • Train the dog yourself
  • Or, you can get someone to help you with the process
  • There are some great, educated trainers available. You may be able to find them at a formal organization in your area
  • Find a therapy dog organization for your test/evaluation and follow their steps to continue the rest of the journey to a certified therapy dog & handler

If getting someone to help you isn’t an option, you can still train the dog by yourself with great success. Not to worry.

The Canine Good Citizen Test is one option to aim towards. It’s important to note that you don’t have to use the Canine Good Citizen Test for your dog training. However, it’s a really fantastic place to start and to use as a guideline.

There are many other tests that different organizations use instead, but they are all rather similar.

They are all pointing to the idea that the dog basically needs to be well socialized, with good manners, ready to be a therapy dog, in different settings, with different people, and different circumstances.

Each organization may have a different test. The Canine Good Citizen Test will not necessarily be required.

The Bright and Beautiful therapy dog organization has their test questions online. You can check it out and see what they’re looking for in a great therapy dog or see them here below in my own words.

canine good citizen test

The Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dog Organization Requirements

Training A Therapy Dog: Requirements For A Successful Therapy Dog

This is just to give you an example of a set of requirements from a Therapy Dog Organization. Each organization may have slightly different requirements. But you can get the general idea.

1. The dog must be well socialized, and be familiar with many different places, people, situations, and other dogs since he was a puppy.

2. The dog must not jump on people, ever.

3. The dog must be well behaved and ‘put his best paw forward’

4. The dog must act with calm curiosity when he sees rolling shopping carts, roller blades and skateboards

5. The dog and handler must handle unexpected appropriately, like Lassie.

6. The dog’s behavior at the vet or groomer must be compliant.

7. Dog and handler need some kind of formal training, at least a beginner’s class, as well as practicing at home.

8. The dog must not have any health problems, and must be checked frequently for lumps and sensitive areas.

9. For accepting treats, the dog must sit and wait until given the signal, and then take the treat gently from the handler’s hand

10. People must not cringe at the sight of the dog, they smile sweetly and pat him fondly

11. When the dog sees another dog, he shows mild curiosity and wags his tail

12. The dog must like children. He wags his tail and is eager to play gently. He will never jump up or scare children

13. The dog must not bark incessantly – ever, he knows it is unacceptable

14. The dog must not growl at strangers, children, or anyone else, even delivery people

15. If the postman crosses the street when he sees you approach with your dog, you won’t pass this test

Training A Therapy Dog: The Canine Good Citizen Test

The Canine Good Citizen Test was created by the American Kennel Club. You can focus on this test when you are beginning to train a therapy dog. Even though, it is not necessarily the test that you will be doing for your certification and registration.

It’s a great place to start and to aim for. It’s just a nice, well-rounded set of basic skills that all dogs will need as a foundation. This is especially true for canines who will be proceeding onward and upwards to become therapy dogs, service dogs, or the many other types of working dogs in the world today.

There are basically 10 ‘tests’ or commands that the dog will need to be able to perform to pass the Canine Good Citizen Test.

a two-part course designed to help you and your dog be the best you can be–together. Since 1989, over 1 million dogs and their owners have participated in CGC, mastering ten basic skills that instill confidence and good manners in and out of your home. 

This program is recognized as the gold standard for dog behavior. In CGC, dogs who pass the 10 step CGC test can earn a certificate and/or the official AKC CGC title.

American Kennel Club

Introduction To Canine Good Citizen Test – Video

Test 1: Accepting A Friendly Stranger

accepting a friendly stranger

Of course, the first thing on the test has to do with strangers. That’s exactly what a therapy dog’s life is all about!

During this test, the dog needs to be able to demonstrate that it’s okay for a friendly stranger to approach the dog and handler.

The friendly stranger may approach and greet the handler, and will ignore the dog. The friendly stranger (who is actually the evaluator for the test) may shake hands and speak briefly with the handler, and will ignore the dog.

In order to pass this test, the dog must not show any signs of resentment or of being shy.

Test 2: Sitting Politely For Petting

Okay so that was pretty easy I would say. The next test has to do with the dog allowing a friendly stranger to touch and pet it while with the handler.

The dog can sit beside the handler, and the ‘friendly stranger’ will begin to pet the dog on the head and body.

It’s okay if the handler wants to talk to the dog during this process. The dog can stay seated, or stand up while the petting is going on.

Most importantly, the dog can’t show any signs of resentment or of being shy.

Test 3: Appearance And Grooming

This test is to ensure that the dog is clean and groomed, and that it doesn’t mind being groomed and examined by someone other than the regular handler. This is sometimes done by a vet, a friend, or a groomer.

The dog needs to be clean and in healthy condition. This includes being alert and having a proper weight.

It’s best if the handler provide the brush or comb that is usually used for the dog. An evaluator will softly brush or comb the dog. The evaluator will also examine the dog’s ears. In addition, the examiner will gently pick up each font foot on the dog for inspection.

The dog doesn’t necessarily need to hold really still for this. And the handler can talk to the dog while this is all going on, if encouragement is needed.

Test 4: Out For A Walk (Walking On A Loose Lead)

out for a walk

This test is basically to demonstrate that the handler is in control while walking with the dog. So, you basically go for a walk. Rover can be on either side of the handler.

Tucker needs to show attentiveness to the handler and to the handler’s movements and changes of direction.

Jax doesn’t need to be perfectly aligned and doesn’t need to sit when the handler stops moving.

There will need to be a right turn, left turn, and a U turn with at least one stop in between. There will need to be another stop near the end.

Test 5: Walking Through A Crowd

walking through a crowd

Of course, therapy dogs will be walking through plenty of crowds if they are to be in hospitals, schools, and other institutions.

This is simply a test to make sure the dog can move through a crowd politely. This may include pedestrian areas. The dog must remain under control in all public places where there may be a crowd.

The handler with the dog will walk, and pass by close, to at least 3 people. It’s okay if the dog might show a little interest in the strangers, but must keep walking with the handler. There must be no signs of shyness, resentment, or over-excitement.

The dog must not be jumping on people, or straining the leash.

Test 6: Sit And Down On Command & Staying In Place

sit and stay

This is another basic training skill where the dog needs to show its response to the commands of ‘sit’, ‘down’, and ‘stay’.

As part of this test, the handler will have to tell the dog to ‘stay’ in a certain position. Then, the handler will walk a distance of 20 feet away, and then return. The dog must ‘stay’ the entire time.

Test 7: Coming When Called

dog coming when called

This is another simple test to make sure the dog will come when called. The handler will need to walk 10 feet away from the dog and then turn to the dog and call for them to come.

Test 8: Reaction To Another Dog

For this test, the dog needs to show that they will behave in a polite and calm way around other dogs. Two handlers with their dogs will approach one another, then, stop and shake hands. They may talk some ‘small talk’ for a few moments and then keep walking their respective ways.

The dogs need to stay calm and show nothing more than ‘casual interest’ in one another. It’s important that neither dog stray from its handler towards the other dog or handler.

Test 9: Reaction To Distraction

reaction to distraction

This test is to show a confident canine while faced with common distractions or distracting situations.

The evaluator will use two distractions, and look for natural interest and curiosity out of the dog.

Examples of distractions include dropping a chair, crutch or cane, rolling a dolly past the dog, or having a jogger run past the dog.

While it’s okay if the dog is slightly startled, the examiner will look that the dog doesn’t panic, bark, run away, or show aggression to any of the distractions.

Test 10: Supervised Separation

supervised separation

This particular test is to show that the dog can be left with another person that the handler trusts. The dog needs to keep showing good manners.

The examiner will ask to watch the dog, and the regular handler will leave the dog’s sight for 3 minutes.

The dog needs to show no signs of continuous barking, whining, pacing, or anything more than mild nervousness or agitation.

Failing The Canine Good Citizen Test

If your training a therapy dog has not gone well… for example, if a dog growls, snaps, bites, attacks, or attempts to attack (a person, or another dog), they will be dismissed from the test. In addition, if a dog ‘goes to the bathroom’ indoors during the test, the test must be marked as a fail.

But, don’t worry. Simply keep working on any items that are not quite polished enough. Many dogs don’t pass the test on their first attempt. You can always brush up skills and then go for the test again. It’s all good.

When You’re Ready For An Evaluation

Done training a therapy dog? When you think your furry friend and yourself are ready for the next step, you can apply to join as a member to any of the national therapy dog organizations.

Part of this process is going through some kind of test or evaluation. If you want or need help training your canine, that is available, too.

Check Out The Following To Find Trainers & Evaluators In Your Area

Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc. is just one of the national therapy dog organizations. It’s just one of the many places you could utilize for training a therapy dog.

They just happen to have this handy list on their website for finding a trainer or evaluator (approved by the American Kennel Club).

But there are many options for finding trainers and evaluators in your area. Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc. – Find a trainer or evaluator

National Therapy Dog Registration & Certification Organizations

Significant advances have been made since the 1980’s in the field of therapy dogs and animal assisted therapy. Organized therapy dog groups:

  • Provide educational material to volunteers
  • Screen both volunteers and dogs
  • Provide liability insurance for when handler & dog are volunteering in a therapy setting (school, hospital, institution)

The following therapy dog certification organizations are recognized by the American Kennel Club. A dog needs to be certified by any one of these organizations in order to be eligible to receive the AKC Therapy Dog title.

Organizations That Can Help With Training A Therapy Dog

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