Written by Nicole McCray
Dogs in general are companions who can provide comfort and ease for their owners. Therapy dogs are animals utilized for where people are in need of emotional support within their community. You will find that therapy teams supply Animal-Assisted Therapy interactions for people dealing with emotional and physical life challenges. They provide a positive distraction, motivation, emotional support, empathy, and compassion in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and multiple other locations.
Therapy dogs do wonderful things throughout our communities, brightening up those that are struggling or dealing with hardship, providing desired emotional support. This is especially more prominent and necessary now with people who are dealing with loneliness and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, unlike service dogs, therapy dogs don’t have legal rights, since their community service is through their handlers. It can be easy to confuse the two.
So, can any dog become a therapy dog? The short answer may seem like a no, but let’s look at the logistics of how someone might actively utilize their best friend to become a therapy dog and bring joy to their community.
CRITERIA FOR THERAPY DOGS
There are various “traits” that make up an ideal therapy dog, which various institutions such as the AKC and community-centered areas that hire therapy dogs will look for. Some of these traits include:
Therapy dogs have to maintain certain temperaments, besides just being friendly with strangers. Not only should they seek and enjoy human interaction, but they need to be open to excessive petting from crowds of people.
They have to know certain commands like “stay”, “sit”, “lay down,” “come,” and “leave it.” There should be no jumping, pawing, or mouthing, and they should also remain neutral and calm around other dogs.
Staying Calm Under Stressful Situations
Another important aspect of a therapy dog is the response to their surroundings – not reacting to things like loud noises or unexpected attention. When working with elders – especially those with wheelchairs or walkers – a therapy dog should be unbothered by the unusual moving objects.
With young children, they may grab at the dog in places like ears or paws, which can cause dogs to react. You need to be certain that your pup will not have aggressive or fearful responses to these actions.
Know Your Dog Well
If you’re looking for a dog to be a therapy dog, you should have at least owned the dog for six months or more. Having owned the dog this long should give you a good idea of its typical behaviors, and the opportunity to see how well it handles training. The dog also should be 18 months or older, since puppies can sometimes be more unpredictable.
If these traits align with your pet’s personality, you may have a potential therapy dog on your hands! The next question has less to do with what type of dog you have and more to do with your fit as a therapy dog volunteer – is owning a therapy dog right for you?
If you are willing to provide a positive, inviting experience for those who interact with your dog, meet minimum training, registration, and volunteer requirements, and have a strong desire to serve our communities, you and your pet might be a perfect fit.
REGISTERING AS A THERAPY DOG
By deciding to work with your dog and become a true therapy team, you should partner with a group that will set you and your new therapy dog up for success, while also taking the guesswork out of the registration process.
There are often criteria that events require therapy dogs to meet, like the use of some kind of a harness or leash or record of a recent visit to the veterinarian to be certified as current on all vaccines and tests. According to the veterinarians at Bond Vet Animal Hospital, it is important to “consistently screen your dog for heartworms and other ailments” to be sure that they are negative before bringing them to a location with many people and other animals.
Once your dog is registered, it would be helpful for you to ensure that you and your dog are up to date on all relevant forms, screenings, training, and certifications. Many places wanting to utilize your dog as a therapy dog might also handle all of the logistics of scheduling you for location visits within your network.
OWNERS PLAY A BIG ROLE WITH THERAPY DOGS
The main factor that determines whether or not your dog is certifiable as a therapy dog also falls to the dog itself. Sometimes owners who want their dogs to be therapy dogs don’t realize that the dog may not want to be one.
You, as the owner, have a big role to play in this. The two of you need to work together as a team and the dog should be more owner-focused than anything else. This shows that you have a strong connection and your dog takes its cues from you so it can understand how to behave.
The earlier in the dog’s life that you can instill this bond, the better off your dog will be, through various activities like socialization, exercise, and positive reinforcement. It can be really beneficial for your dog to learn tricks since people are always pleased and impressed to see a dog that can do different things.
Dogs also tend to love the chase, and this is something that needs a lot of focus with a dog early on, to learn a command such as “leave it” so that the dog doesn’t go after something, like a person or another animal. Your dog should be able to walk by and pay no mind.
WHY SHOULD YOUR DOG BE A THERAPY DOG?
Having a therapy dog is a very rewarding experience. Dogs have the ability to bring about so many benefits for humans, such as lowering stress and anxiety, reducing blood pressure, and releasing more endorphins. Emotional support can be another great benefit that these dogs can bring us, especially in times of loneliness or when experiencing feelings of depression.
This overall makes people very happy and relaxed, which creates a wonderful atmosphere. Sometimes, the role of a therapy dog becomes a new companion and friend, while providing the amount of emotional support that is necessary.
Training your dog to be a therapy dog will not be easy. So, can any dog be a therapy dog? Yes! But it will require upfront work as an owner. Even after being certified as a therapy dog, it is important you keep up with your dog’s training up to date. Once you have passed the required tests and certifications, to be able to visit others and brighten up peoples’ days can be a priceless and heartwarming reward, which is totally worth it.