So you think your dog could be a therapy dog

So you think your dog could be a therapy dog

Furry comfort on four paws

By Amanda Gordon

I got Suzy about a year ago on Craigslist. My last dog was a biter so it was back to my uncle’s farm for him. I hadn’t intended to get another dog quite so soon, but you know how it is, browsing through the dog ads, not really looking, and then you think, “Well, that one’s cute. Won’t hurt to go take a look.” I don’t have to tell you how the worked out.

But I was concerned. Suzy was a border collie and I’d always heard they were smart, active dogs that needed a job. I was afraid I’d be too boring for her, so I decided to try an agility class to give her something to do. That didn’t work; she didn’t understand the point to all the running and jumping. So then I took her for a herding evaluation and she wouldn’t even look at the stock. About the only thing she really enjoyed was hiking, and well, I’m not really up for completing the Colorado Trail.

a therapy dog

Suzy at work

She’s an incredibly sweet little thing and charms everyone she meets, surprisingly quiet, and has a way of putting her head in your lap that is absolutely adorable. I thought she would make a great therapy dog, so I began looking into it.

Therapy dog certification

There are two main certification agencies: Therapy Dogs International and Therapy Dogs Incorporated.  (Now that’s not confusing, is it?) I decided to go with TDInc. as their requirements seemed simpler to me:

  • Temperament test (free)
  • Three supervised therapy visits (free)
  • Rabies vaccination certificate
  • Release form negative fecal exam
  • $30 annual membership + $10 initial application fee


I found a certifier after talking to another therapy dog owner at the hospital, but you can also find one on their website.

After your application is processed and you’re a member, you are covered by their insurance plan whenever your dog is working.

Not a service dog

This is a common mistake, but therapy dogs aren’t service dogs. They aren’t trained to perform a specific function for a disabled person nor do they have the same access privileges under the Americans With Disabilities Act. They are just there to be petted and provide emotional support to those who need it. Common venues are nursing homes, hospitals, and day care centers.

They must be gentle, good with other dogs, reasonably obedient, and interested in people. Suzy isn’t actually all that good with other dogs — she can be a bit growly when she first meets them — but one of TDInc.’s requirements is that dogs are not allowed to socialize while they are working. The majority of their insurance claims are dog-on-dog incidents so there’s a good reason for that rule.

Develop a routine

It’s also a good idea to visit the same institutions regularly as the residents get to know your dog and look forward to their visits. I have one elderly lady who insists on feeding Suzy a big vanilla sandwich cookie every time she sees her. I try to stop her as it’s not exactly Science Diet, but it gives her great joy to do it. (She won’t find it so joyful if Suzy ever throws up on her!)

But you have to be careful as nursing home residents can be pretty frail. Suzy went in to see one bedridden old chap, put her forequarters on the bed next to him, then swiped him in the face with her paw. Oops. He wasn’t all that keen after that. You have to be especially careful if you do a hospital visit as those people might have IVs and stitches. And, of course, your dog has to be clean.

Therapy work can be very rewarding for both the dog and the recipient, but to be truly effective you need to develop a routine and stick to it. After all, you want to pet your dog more than once in a blue moon, don’t you? So do they.

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