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 actual contact. Playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.

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?

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Animal Assisted Activities therapy introduces pets to withdrawn people to encourage communication.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.

Temperament of a Therapy Dog

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.

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

Preparing a Dog as a Therapy Animal

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. As long as your dog is properly socialized, it should take to therapy training fairly readily.

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 American Kennel Club’s (AKC) 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

Steps in Therapy Dog Training

According to the AKC website, there are 10 separate tests within its Canine Good Citizen program, some of which are self-explanatory.

  1. Accepting a Friendly Stranger. This tests whether the dog will allow a stranger to approach when it's out with its owner.
  2. Sit Politely for Petting: The dog sits still and allows the stranger to pet it.
  3. 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.
  4. Out for a Walk: The dog should be able to walk on a loose leash with its owner.
  5. Walking Through a Crowd: This tests whether the dog can handle walking through a crowd with its owner, without reacting negatively to anyone.
  6. Sit and Down on Command and Stay in Place
  7. Coming When Called
  8. 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.
  9. Reaction to Distractions. This tests how easily a dog can focus on the task at hand.
  10. Supervised Separation. This final test ensures that the dog can handle being away from its owner for short periods.

Problems With Training Therapy Dogs

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,