How to Train a Puppy to Become a Therapy Dog

illustration of what makes a good therapy dog?

Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018 

Puppy kisses and snuggles may be one of the best therapies for us, and it is for this reason that therapy dogs are used to cheer up people and offer therapeutic services.

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

What Is a Therapy Dog?

Therapy dogs interact with people to offer feelings of well-being or encourage rehabilitation through actual contact. Playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.

These are two broad categories of therapy service: Animal Assisted Therapy and Animal Assisted Activities Therapy.

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. A dog—just being a normal wagging dog—can help return normalcy to people of all ages who must endure abnormal situations.

Animal Assisted Therapy uses companion animals as a part of the patient’s therapy. Interactions with the dog are part of a treatment plan designed by a healthcare professional to improve the patient’s physical or emotional function. For instance, tossing a ball or brushing the dog's coat encourages repetitive hand-eye coordination exercises.

Animal Assisted Activities therapy introduces pets to withdrawn people to encourage communication. Many people often 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 like a seeing-eye dog.

What Training Is Required?

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.

Older dogs usually make the best therapy animals as they are less excitable and know basic obedience. But you can start training your puppy early to prepare it for a future as a therapy dog.

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 do a good job of encouraging people to throw a ball for them or have the height to stand next to a wheelchair or bed for appropriate interaction.

You will want to 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. 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.

Registering Therapy Dogs

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, up to date on vaccinations, and will be tested on basic obedience and conditions that you might encounter on a visit.

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 AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test. A great place to start is with the AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy Program. After that, you and the dog must be assessed by a TDI evaluator for temperament and suitability for the job.