How to Train a Puppy to Become a Therapy Dog

Therapy Nose Touch
Image Copr. Amy Shojai, CABC

Puppy kisses may be one of the best therapies for us, and therapy dogs offer a very specific service. There is no age or breed requirement and a positive puppy temperament test and good health may make a good a good candidate to be a therapy dog.

What Is a Therapy Dog?

Therapy dogs interact with people to offer feelings of well-being or encourage rehabilitation through actual contact. Animals can provide a nonjudgmental presence. Hospitals, nursing facilities, schools and rehab centers can be stressful and scary. A dog—just being a normal wagging dog—helps return normalcy to people of all ages who must endure abnormal situations.

There are two broad categories of therapy service. Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) 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 his coat encourages repetitive hand-eye coordination exercises.

Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) therapy introduces pets to withdrawn people to encourage communication because patients often relax in the presence of a friendly animal. There’s no formal treatment plan or trained professional needed.

Neither AAT nor AAA dogs are considered service animals by federal law. Service animals are defined as those trained to actively help people with disabilities.

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. They 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 working your puppy early to prepare you for a future as a therapy dog.

You’d also need to be friendly and good listeners. Dogs of all sizes, mutts, and purebreds make great therapy animals. Smaller dogs are great at snuggling on a bed or lap. Larger dogs do well-encouraging patients to throw a ball for them, for example, or will stand next to a wheelchair or bed for interaction.

A leash and collar, treats, and a grooming brush can be handy tools. People your dog meets may wish to brush her, feed treats for obeying trick commands, or even walk her around the hospital room.

Registering Therapy Dogs

You and your puppy don’t have to be registered, but it’s 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 human patients with similar challenges.

Dogs must be deemed healthy by a veterinary, including 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) also 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.