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How To Get a Therapy Dog

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Since dogs were domesticated tens of thousands of years ago, they have served alongside their humans loyally,  assisting in countless ways. Although humans have a lot more in common with primates, we are much closer with dogs in terms of love and friendship. 

One of the newest ways that our canine friends can help us is by becoming a therapy dog. While perhaps not as effective as traditional therapy, there are tons of benefits that therapy dogs can bring. Although the practice is ancient, the specific definitions and qualifications are more recent. The Americans with Disabilities Act has lots of information about the details of dogs in relation to therapy and services. 

A Brief History of Therapy Dogs 

Animals being used for therapy can be dated back to ancient Greece and all the way through medieval times. However, it wasn’t until the 1800s when Animal Assisted Therapy really began to take off. 

Famed nurse Florence Nightingale noticed that small pets helped to reduce stress and anxiety in her adult and youth patients. This set off a wave of informal experimentation into the connection between humans and developed into an idea called the “human-animal bond.” 

The idea surmised that humans need interaction with animals and nature to normalize their busy lives. However, the first formal research involving animal therapy was started in the 1960s when Dr. Boris Levinson found that his dog had a positive effect on his mentally impaired young patients. He discovered that his patients were much more comfortable and more likely to socialize with his dog than they were with other humans. From these beginnings years ago, we now have the very common services of therapy dogs.

Therapy Dogs vs Service Animals 

A common misconception is that therapy dogs and service animals are the same things. In fact, they are completely different for several reasons.

Service animals are defined as dogs that are specifically trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Some common examples are guiding a blind person, alerting a deaf person, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting someone who is seizure prone, or helping to calm someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Service animals are working animals and are not pets, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Therapy dogs are often very highly trained but not as intensely as or for the same jobs as service dogs. The main responsibilities of a therapy dog are to provide psychological and psychological therapy to humans. Therapy dogs generally have good temperaments and are calm with easy-going personalities. Service dogs are trained specifically not to interact with or be touched by anyone other than their handler. 

Classifications of Therapy Dogs 

There are many different tasks that a therapy dog will perform and various classifications for them as well. As mentioned above, service dogs are highly trained to provide very specific services and are in their own type of class. With therapy dogs, there are a few different ways to define them:

  • Emotional support dogs: These are medically prescribed dogs that will typically help an individual suffering from mental or emotional issues. Not in any particular way other than just being with the person and helping to soothe and calm them.
  • Therapeutic visitation dogs: These dogs will travel with their owners and visit hospitals, mental health facilities, and other healthcare-related centers to emotionally help the patients residing there.
  • Animal-assisted therapy dogs: Typically reserved for rehabilitation clinics, this dog will help patients regain mobility through various motor control activities while under the guidance of a trained physiotherapist. 
  • Facility therapy dogs: Often used in elderly care facilities in order to alert staff of issues with patients. They also serve to provide companionship to the residents and help prevent loneliness. 

How To Certify a Dog for Therapy Service

The process for owning a therapy dog is relatively simple and inexpensive.  While purchasing a fully trained therapy dog is, of course, an option — there is another way to go as well. That would be training and certifying your own dog. Although the process may take some time and a little bit of effort, it’s really only three steps in order to register a therapy dog:

  1. Adopt: Obviously the first step would be procuring a dog if you don’t already have one. When considering the best dogs for therapy work, you will want to do some research because certain breeds are better suited for therapy services than others. The best two breeds are generally considered to be labrador retrievers and golden retrievers, but many other breeds have been known to make excellent therapy dogs.
    Another thing to keep in mind is the personality, behavior, and temperament of the dog. These traits are all very important for therapy work. For instance, a calm, friendly, and well-behaved pitbull would work better than an ill-tempered, shy, and wild golden retriever. Adopting a dog should always be considered first over buying from a breeder as those dogs deserve a home and can be just as good, if not better, than breeder dogs. Dogs can become therapy animals at any age, but training is much easier the younger the dog is when it’s started.
  2. Train: Now that you have the dog picked out, next up is the training process. There are many various methods for training dogs, but consulting a professional is probably the best way to go. Arguably the most important part of the training will be making sure the dog exhibits positive behaviors while avoiding negative ones.
    When registering your dog, the certifiers will look for bad behavior that will quickly disqualify a dog. Jumping on people, excessive barking, and chewing on items will disqualify a dog fast! Also, dogs that are shy or do not enjoy approaching strangers or people, in general, will not make the cut.
    The most common traits to focus on training are:
  • Friendliness
  • Obedience
  • Intelligence
  • Outgoing
  • Gentle
  • Quiet
  • Relaxed
  • Focus
  • Unaggressive
  • Not easily startled 

    3. Register: The first requirement for therapy dog certification will be that the dog is at least one year old and is up to date with all vaccines and shots. Documentation will be required in regards to the age of the dog and the medical history. A qualified organization will perform a certification test in order to see if the dog has the right qualities for therapy work. If they do not, then further testing may be required.
    Another note is that your dog will be tested more than once. The abilities of you as a dog handler will also be put to the test. If you cannot show that your dog will follow your commands and that you can properly manage it then the dog will not be certified.
    The Canine Good Citizen test is a good way to measure how your dog will perform during the registration test.
    This exam is broken down into ten parts:

  • Accepting a friendly stranger
  • Sitting politely for petting
  • Appearance and grooming
  • Walking on a loose lead
  • Walking through a crowd
  • Sit and down on command/stay in place
  • Coming when called
  • Reaction to another dog
  • Reaction to distractions
  • Supervised separation 

Once the dog has passed the certification process, they will officially be registered as a therapy dog. It’s important to remember that even if your dog is officially certified as a therapy dog, it does not meet the requirements for service animal protections in the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Service dogs are permitted full public access rights, meaning they must be allowed in stores and public places, even if animals are not permitted, and are also allowed on planes and public transport. Therapy dogs do not qualify for these protections. 

The Takeaway

Therapy dogs can come in all shapes, sizes, and breeds. While there are details that separate therapy dogs in terms of classifications, ultimately, these dogs have the same purpose: to help their humans! 

Dogs have been scientifically proven to reduce heart attacks, create better blood pressure, lower stress levels, increase self-esteem, and increase psychological well-being. So it’s no surprise that owning a dog has also been proven to increase the owner’s lifespan. 

When it comes to owning a therapy dog, it can be a great responsibility, especially if you intend to bring the dog to others. However, the rewards can be well worth it. While maybe not as effective as a licensed therapist, a therapy dog can go a long way toward helping out humans with emotional and mental needs. 

Sources

  1. A history of therapy dogs for depression (therapydogs.com) 
  2. Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA (ada.gov)
  3. How To Get A Therapy Dog | The Full Process & Requirements (usservoceanimals.org)
  4. How To Get A Therapy Dog For Anxiety (therapydogs.com) 
  5. Canine Good Citizen (CGC) – American Kennel Club (akc.org) 

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