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Qualities that Distinguish a Good Therapy Dog

Temperament is the most important factor. (Remember the old real estate cliche, “location, location, location”? Well, in therapy work it’s “temperament, temperament, temperament”—because nothing else will take its place.)

A dog who is friendly—who really likes people in general—is already a promising candidate. The dog who is friendly and well behaved—no jumping, running around, licking people without permission—is on the way to certification. The dog who is trained to work around people who are bedridden or in wheelchairs, who is always under the handler’s precise control, who can perhaps perform a few entertaining tricks—is halfway there. The dog who can take accidental mishaps in stride (such as when a disturbed client yells or brandishes a cane), who can deal alike with the endlessly repetitive interactions of Alzheimers patients, with the grabbing and gurgling of infants, and with the unpredictability of psychiatric inpatients—and give every indication of enjoying its work—is indeed a Therapy Dog.

Note that very little has been said about training, as such. Yes, training matters—but unless the dog is friendly to start with, the training may well be wasted for this particular purpose. I have personally known a number of highly-trained dogs, some with truly impressive obedience titles, who would be barely adequate (if that) as Therapy Dogs. Of our own dogs, the better-trained one, who will retrieve various objects by name, perform lengthy out-of-sight sits and stays, etc., etc., is not a T-Dog prospect for several reasons, the most important of which is that he likes most strangers but by no means all. He also has very normal reactions to disturbances and to perceived threats involving either himself or us. Our less-trained dog, on the other hand, is a natural. She not only loves everyone, but she is virtually “people-proof.” If a cyclist ran over her tail after a parade, she would not (as her better-trained colleague did) bark at the person; she would look to me for a signal. You get the idea.

Functions that Therapy Dogs Typically Perform

There are many uses for Therapy Dogs (AKA Visiting Dogs) and pet therapy (AKA animal assisted therapy). The list below ascends from the most general and also unskilled to the most demanding level, requiring more training.

  • Promoting a general feeling of wellbeing (children, elderly, general hospital admits)
  • Providing unconditional affection to those who lack it (persons in prisons and shelters, especially domestic-abuse shelters)
  • Improving focus (Alzheimers patients and persons suffering from clinical depression)
  • Interacting with those who have difficulty communicating (nonverbal clients; some psychiatric inpatients; persons with a range of associative disorders)
  • Stimulating memory functions (especially in Alzheimers patients)
  • Encouraging and aiding speech functions (e.g., in stroke patients)
    Note that all the activities above rely on a combination of touching, talking about, etc., in most of which the dog does not have to “do” very much except act friendly and be willing to be handled a lot.
  • Motivating simple physical activities for the mobility impaired (e.g., patting, brushing ,etc.)
  • Providing practice for specific Physical Therapy functions (throwing ball, offering tidbits, etc.)
    In these cases, the dog may perform much more specific tasks, or at least may need more specific equipment, such as horse-type brushes (the oval flat kind with a strap across the back) for patients who have difficulty uncurling their fingers) or a Hula Hoop, with which both the dog and some of the patients can practice specific movements.
  • Modeling perseverance (many Therapy Dogs have been through terrible times—patients often find it comforting that the Therapy Dog has not only survived these but have become useful to others).

Settings in which Therapy Dogs Are Used

Therapy Dogs work wherever they are invited. Some of the places they are invited to visit include:

  • Hospitals
  • Long-term Care Facilities
  • Nursing Homes
  • Adult Care (“adult day care”) Facilities
  • Mental Health Centers
  • Special Education settings, including classrooms
  • Senior Citizen programs
  • Domestic Abuse shelters
  • Children’s Residential Facilities
  • Prisons
  • Home Health visits
  • Libraries (reading programs)

Reasons for Wanting to Be a Therapy Dog Handler

The dog is only half the team. You must not only work effectively with your dog; you must also learn to interact effectively with whatever clients you are visiting. This means that you will be working at least as hard as your dog. In many facilities, the professional staff will provide very specific guidance; in others, such as quite a few nursing homes, you will be on your own. My recommendation is to try to visit a facility (without your dog) to observe an experienced team working under those particular conditions. If this is not possible, then try to schedule one visit without the dog (to walk around and get the picture), then another preliminary short one with the dog, to meet the staff.

Prevention is the best cure for therapy-visit mishaps, and most organizations stress that. Paradoxically, your first responsibility is to protect your dog. Not every patient wants to interact with dogs, and it takes quite a while to develop a sense of how to encourage interaction without causing problems. Some patients become very emotional when they recall the dogs of their childhood, or the dogs they will never be able to “play with” again now that they are paralyzed. It’s important to play through possible scenarios like these before you encounter them! It’s also important to keep in touch with the professional staff, and with fellow visiting teams that may have more experience.

Some handlers have trouble dealing with one or another class of patients (very ill children; Alzheimers patients in the more advanced stages; paraplegics; etc.) and should recognize their own strong and weak points in order to concentrate where they can be most useful. For instance, one “team” is more successful with psychiatric patients (both inpatients and outpatients) and with Rehab patients than in the typical nursing home setting, though we do visit an adult day care facility. For this reason, we now go more often to the two hospital settings where we are most effective, and have “traded off” a nursing home to another team that works better there.

Mechanisms for Certifying Therapy Dogs

It varies. Usually   an   organization (for the testing/certification and the insurance) and possibly a  local training club (for basic obedience training) are involved. It is possible to deal directly with some of the local organizations, such as Nature Coast Therapy Dogs, Inc.; there is a tester in your area, you may be able to get certified and then schedule your own visits with area facilities.  There’s always more to learn in this type of work, and doing it with other people means that you are more likely to hear about techniques that will help you.

Most  organizations require evidence of a stable temperament and/or basic training before they will even consider screening/training a Therapy Dog prospect. The exact nature of that evidence may be either specified by them, in some cases, or spelled out by a local group. The Canine Good Citizen test is frequently used for pre-screening.

The prospective Therapy Dog is further screened in busy and sometimes stressful circumstances and closely observed on practice visits to health facilities. Some local clubs require that the handler be a club member; others conduct (and require) special therapy-dog classes, either before or after certification—or both.

To contact a tester in the Citrus County area who can help you begin the evaluation process for becoming a therapy dog team, email us the following information:

  • Your name
  • Your email address
  • Your phone number
  • If you are a minor, your age and your parent or guardian’s contact information
  • Your dog’s name
  • Your dog’s breed
  • Your dog’s age
  • City and state where you are located
  • A description of the kind of work you are interested in doing

Therapy Dogs/Service Dogs

Most of this page is about therapy dogs and animal assisted therapy. The most important piece of information you need to know about therapy dogs, though, is what they are not. Therapy dogs are not service (or “assistance”) dogs.

Why does this matter? Well, because service dogs are vitally important to those people with disabilities who are fortunate enough to have these wonderful animals. Service dogs include guide (or “leader”) dogs for the blind; hearing dogs, that alert their owners to sounds; mobility assistance dogs, which may pull a wheelchair or directly support a person; seizure alert dogs; and others. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person with a disability is entitled to take a service animal with him, or her, wherever it is needed. Period.

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, perform their tasks by invitation. The owner of a therapy dog has no more “right” of access to a hospital, nursing home, school, or other public place than any other able-bodied person with a pet.


It must be attractive, properly fitted, and in compliance with your  registry’s requirements.   Personally, I think that if at all possible, the collar should be washable—especially if you are working in a hospital environment or with people whose immune systems are compromised.

Registries differ: I like the martingale collar because (1) it is bidirectional so the dog can work on either side of you, and (2) the dog can’t back out of it. Even a trained dog will very occasionally panic; the martingale collar minimizes that problem. I use martingales with the dogs that I handle.


Again, I like fabric because it is washable (unlike leather). Many handlers have a series of different leashes for different seasons and holidays.  It’s up to you what leash you use – holiday themed ones are especially welcome by everyone!  HOWEVER – you may NOT use a retractable leash – EVER!  Also, leashes more than 6′ in length are usually cumbersome and just in the way – so choose wisely.

Pickup bags:

Always remember to pick up after your dog and dispose of the waste in an appropriate receptacle. Happy memories should be all you leave behind after each visit.

ID capes or vests:

Our dogs wear vests that have been made especially for them.  They are not given the vests until the team has passed all requirements.  Our people also wear shirts that have our logo on them, as it’s easier for personnel to be identified as belonging to (or not!) the dog on the premises.

Important documents:

You may be asked to produce a copy of your dog’s vaccination certificate or your membership card for the national organization through which you and your dog are registered. It is a good idea to carry copies of these documents in a folder or some other kind of protective covering so you can produce them upon request.  Insurance is another piece of the puzzle, and a copy of your coverage should be kept at each facility you visit.

Other useful items:

  • Water for you and your dog
  • Pen and paper
  • A “drool cloth” if your dog salivates excessively
  • For the smaller dogs, often times they can visit more easily from a stroller as it brings the dog to the level of the bedside, rather than the handler having to pick the dog up with each patient seen.
  • Antibiotic wipes – I find these especially important after all visits – it keeps those sweet heads we love to kiss, clean and germ free.  I wipe down my dogs’ paws as well because you never know just what they’ve been walking through – and they don’t leave their paws at the door !
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