Help your pup become a therapy dog

Help your pup become a therapy dog
Therapy dogs can provide many health benefits to those in need. (Photo/Audrey Keefe)

By Kim Jones Gilliam

Numerous studies have shown the physical and emotional health benefits of owning a dog. Interacting with and petting dogs relieves anxiety with the release of dopamine and serotonin, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels, improves heart health and more. Therapy dogs can bring these health benefits to people who need it most: those who are in high stress situations, are grieving, are lonely or are in hospitals and nursing homes.

Studies have shown that therapy dogs also benefit from this work, achieving higher rates of endorphins and oxytocin than average family pets. If you’ve got a friendly, well-behaved dog that loves people, you might be the perfect candidates to brighten someone’s day as a therapy dog and handler team.

Gus the goldendoodle and I volunteer with People Animals Love and have visited residents of a homeless shelter, nurses at a mental hospital, students stressed during final exams and government officials responding to international crises. Each visit varies, but you should see how excited Gus is when I put on his PAL bandana and tell him it’s time to make a difference.

Note that therapy dogs are not service dogs, who receive extensive training to provide specific services for a person with special needs and receive full public access per the Americans with Disabilities Act. They are also not emotional support animals; these require a prescription from a mental health professional but need no special training or certifications to do their job. Therapy dogs volunteer with their owners/handlers to help others and are certified through their therapy group.

They do not receive the same special access as service dogs. Interested? Here are the three steps to have your pet become a therapy dog.

1. Pass the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen Test.

All therapy dogs need to be under owner control and have basic training. As such, most therapy groups require that the dog pass the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test before taking the group’s own assessment. The CGC is a 10-point test that ensures understanding of basic commands including come, sit, stay and down, as well as appropriate responses around strangers, other dogs and distractions. You can learn about the test items and practice with your pup or enroll in a CGC test prep class. Once ready, schedule your test with a local AKC certified CGC evaluator.

2. Register with a therapy dog group.

The AKC site lists therapy dog organizations and their requirements. These organizations enable you to volunteer in your community alongside experienced therapy dog handlers who can share the skills needed in different settings. They also provide members with the necessary liability insurance. Complete their application and assessment requirements, which may be significant, as you are going to visit people who are physically or mentally vulnerable.

3. Start volunteering.

Once vetted, you can sign up to volunteer at locations where your dog would do well and feel rewarded. Some dogs do better in high energy environments like schools and homeless shelters, but others do better in calm environments like nursing homes and rehabilitation hospitals. You know your dog best: If it ever doesn’t feel like the right fit for your dog, it’s your job to take them out of that situation. Your dog’s health and wellbeing are just as important as the people you are hoping to visit.

The AKC recognizes those who volunteer their time in an animal-assisted therapy setting to improve the lives of others. After you’ve made 10 visits, you can apply for the AKC Novice Therapy Dog title.

While there are no breed or age restrictions for therapy dogs, not every pup is cut out for this special job. A good therapy dog is a mixture of personality and training: They should have a calm demeanor, patience, confidence and a love of human contact. Dogs that are obedient, gentle, outgoing and not easily overwhelmed are generally best suited for this role. And they must be comfortable being touched, sometimes by many hands at once.

While it takes work to get you and your pup ready to serve as a therapy dog team, being able to share their heart-warming nature with people in need is incredibly rewarding. 

The writer co-owns Frolick Dogs, a canine sports club in Alexandria.