Does Your Pooch Have What It Takes to Be a Therapy Dog?


If your dog is mellow and loves people and other pooches, you just might have a therapy dog in the making.

Accompanied by their handlers, therapy dogs visit people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and other facilities, providing comfort and compassion.

“Four-footed therapists give something special to enhance the health and well-being of others,” says Therapy Dogs International (TDI), a volunteer organization dedicated to the regulating, testing and registration of therapy dogs and their handlers.

“It has been clinically proven that through petting, touching and talking with animals, patients’ blood pressure is lowered, stress is relieved and depression is eased.”

Interested? Read on to find out more about how to help your pooch become a therapy dog.

What Type of Dog Makes a Good Therapy Dog?

“A therapy dog is born, not made,” notes TDI. “A therapy dog must have an outstanding temperament. This means that the dog should be outgoing and friendly to all people; men, women and children. The dog should be tolerant of other dogs (of both genders) and non-aggressive toward other pets.”

Are Therapy Dogs the Same as Service Dogs?

No. Therapy dogs do not have the same legal rights (such as being allowed inside restaurants and on public transportation) as do service dogs.

“Service dogs are dogs who are specially trained to perform specific tasks to help a person who has a disability,” the American Kennel Club (AKC) explains. “An example of a service dog is a dog who guides an owner who is blind, or a dog who assists someone who has a physical disability. Service dogs stay with their person and have special access privileges in public places such as on planes, restaurants, etc.”

While dogs of any breed or breed mix can potentially become therapy dogs, service dogs “are often picked by breed for certain characteristics,” writes Rachel McPherson, founder and executive director of the Good Dog Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes animal-assisted therapy, on These breeds are usually Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds.

How Does a Dog Become a Therapy Dog?

Along with the ability to obey basic commands like “Sit,” “Stay,” “Come” and “Leave it,” dogs are tested by therapy dog certification organizations to ensure they can do the following, according to Therapy Dogs Inc.:

  • Be good around other dogs
  • Listen to their handlers
  • Allow strangers to touch them all over
  • Not jump on people when interacting
  • Walk on a leash without pulling
  • Not mind strange noises and smells
  • Be calm for petting
  • Not be afraid of people walking unsteadily

To get an idea of the type of testing involved, this TDI brochure describes each of the 13 tests a dog must pass in order to be certified as a therapy dog.

Some therapy dog organizations, including Pet Partners, offer workshops so that you and your dog can practice the required skills before being tested.

Therapy dogs must also be at least 1 year old; current on all vaccines required by local laws; have a negative fecal test every 12 months; and be clean and well groomed when visiting people.

Where Can Dogs Be Tested?

The American Kennel Club has a list of therapy dog certification organizations that test and register therapy dogs.