How to Train a Puppy to Become a Therapy Dog

If your dog is well socialized, it may be able to become a therapy dog

Female patient hugging a therapy dog in a hospital
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Therapy dogs interact with people to offer feelings of well-being or encourage rehabilitation through contact. Playing with a dog can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.

Since animals are a nonjudgmental presence, they can help people who get scared or stressed out in unusual environments like hospitals, nursing facilities, schools, and rehab centers. Just by behaving normally and wagging its tail, a dog can help return normalcy to people of all ages who must endure abnormal situations.

If you want to share the love of your dog with others, the good news is that there is no age or breed requirement. All that's required is a positive puppy temperament test and that your dog is healthy.

illustration of what makes a good therapy dog
Illustration: Catherine Song. © The Spruce, 2019 

Consider Whether Your Dog Is a Good Candidate

To be a good therapy animal, your dog must be friendly to all kinds of people, and quiet and calm in a variety of environments. The dog should enjoy being touched by strangers, especially children, and know how to take treats nicely.

Dogs of all sizes, mutts, or purebreds make great therapy animals. Smaller dogs are great for snuggling in a hospital bed or on a lap. Larger dogs may encourage people to throw a ball for them or have the height to stand next to a wheelchair or bed for appropriate interaction.

There are two broad categories of therapy service: animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities therapy.

  • Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) uses companion animals as a component of a patient’s therapy. A health care professional prescribes interactions with a dog as part of a treatment plan to improve a patient’s physical or emotional function. For example, tossing a ball or brushing a dog's coat encourages repetitive hand-eye coordination exercises.
  • Animal-assisted activities (AAA) introduce pets to withdrawn people to encourage communication. Many people relax in the presence of a friendly animal. There’s no formal treatment plan or a trained professional needed.

Neither of these types of therapy dogs is considered a service animal by federal law. Service animals are defined as those trained to actively help people with disabilities, including seeing-eye dogs and diabetic alert dogs.

Practice the Tests for Therapy Dog Training

Older dogs usually make the best therapy animals (they tend to be less excitable and know basic obedience) but you can start training your puppy early to prepare it for a future as a therapy dog. According to the AKC website, there are 10 separate tests within its Canine Good Citizen program, and most cover basic behavior training.

  • Accepting a friendly stranger: This tests whether the dog will allow a stranger to approach when it's out with its owner.
  • Sit politely for petting: The dog sits still and allows the stranger to pet it.
  • Appearance and grooming: This is when the dog allows someone other than its owner to check its feet and ears as if it were at the vet.
  • Out for a walk: The dog should be able to walk on a loose leash with its owner.
  • Walking through a crowd: This tests whether the dog can handle walking through a crowd with its owner, without reacting negatively to anyone.
  • Sit and down on command, and stay in place: Dogs must be able to comply with basic behavioral commands.
  • Coming when called: Dogs must respond to recall commands.
  • Reaction to another dog: This test has two dog owners approach each other with their dogs. The dogs should behave while the owners have a short conversation.
  • Reaction to distractions: This tests how easily a dog can focus on the task at hand.
  • Supervised separation: The final test ensures that the dog can handle being away from its owner for short periods.

    Have Your Dog Formally Assessed

    Therapy Dogs International (TDI) tests and registers therapy dogs. TDI is a volunteer group, but your pup must be at least a year old and pass the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Good Citizen test.

    If you don't feel ready for the tests, a great place to start is with the AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy Program to help work on the 10 behaviors that are critical for dogs to master. After that, you and the dog still must be assessed by a TDI evaluator for temperament and suitability for becoming a therapy dog.

    Problems and Proofing Behavior

    Some dogs are just not suited to be therapy animals; they may not have the temperament or may have an unknown health condition which precludes them from the job. This is usually discovered in the training period. If your dog is skittish around strangers, it will be necessary to socialize the animal better before continuing the training. But even the most responsive, affectionate pet may never develop the knack for being a therapy dog. It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the dog, just that it's not a good candidate for being a therapy dog.

    Make sure your dog is trained to walk on a leash and wears a collar. As an icebreaker, bring treats and a grooming brush to therapy sessions. Dogs will nuzzle up to strangers if they know a treat might be in it for them. As long as your dog is properly socialized, it should take to therapy training fairly readily.

    You and your puppy do not have to be registered, but it is best to undergo formal training. Delta Society offers home-study courses and workshops to learn more, and lists trained animal-handler teams. Even pups with disabilities themselves are welcome—and they may actually offer even more inspiration to people with similar challenges.

    Dogs must be deemed healthy by a veterinarian, and be up to date on vaccinations. They will be tested on basic obedience and conditions that you might encounter on a visit. Do not be surprised if the people that your dog meets want to brush the dog, feed treats for obeying trick commands, or even walk the dog around the hospital room. Prepare for these requirements by reinforcing basic behavior commands.