Can Your Dog Be A Therapy Dog? | Advice From A Vet Who Screens Therapy Dogs

Dogs can provide love and comfort in ways that humans just can’t. When someone is sick or hurting, a sweet, loving dog can brighten their day in a very unique way. Therapy dogs have proven their worth in a variety of settings over the past decade. More and more hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and large businesses are using therapy dogs to help people.

Can your dog be a therapy dog? Absolutely, providing that they meet the requirements of the program that you are trying to enter. Each hospital/nursing home/etc has their own requirements for therapy dogs. Some are more stringent than others. The basis of any good therapy dog is a desire to please others and the intelligence to be obedient and calm when needed.

Where Are Therapy Dogs Used?

Therapy dogs are used in so many places that it’s not longer surprising to see them anywhere. The most common locations that you will see dogs utilized include:

  • Hospitals (especially those for children)
  • Nursing Homes
  • Schools (especially after tragedies)
  • Large Businesses
  • Small Businesses
  • Airports
  • Anywhere there’s been a horrible event such as a school shooting or natural disaster

Are There Certifications For Therapy Dogs?

While there are some places advertising “certifications” for therapy dogs, there are no universal standards for what constitutes a properly trained therapy dog.

Much of this is derived from just how varied the work of a therapy dog is. In the most stringent conditions, such as the Pet Prescription Program, there’s a rigid behavioral, medical, and obedience testing protocol that must be passed.

In other facilities such as a library, it may be simply good enough to be a well-behaved dog who likes to lay down near kids and get petted.

This may not be true in all areas. It’s quite possible that certain locations or cities might have a standard for therapy dogs. However, it’s not like that in Denver.

Screening Dogs For Children’s Hospital In Denver

I’ve been privileged enough to be a volunteer Veterinarian with Children’s Hospital in Denver for several years now. I was recruited into the program by one of my clients who had been working with the program for a long time.

My responsibility as a screening veterinarian is to evaluate the behavior and physical capabilities of any dog candidate or existing therapy dog in the program. Every dog that is in the program must undergo an annual exam by an independent veterinarian to look for body conditions that may hamper that dog’s ability to continue with the program.

I’ve screened dozens of dogs for the program over the past 7 years and have a really good idea of what makes a great therapy dog. Hopefully my experience can help you determine if your dog has the makings of one.

How A Vet Examines A Therapy Dog Candidate

Before I could begin to become a veterinary evaluator for the Prescription Pet Program, I went through several hours of training to ensure that I would maintain the standards of the program. A veterinarian performing these types of evaluations must keep the interests of the program in mind first and not worry about upsetting dog owners.

With that in mind, there are two phases of the veterinary evaluation for a therapy dog in the Children’s Hospital program:

Behavior Evaluation

There are a number of quick tests that are done when an evaluation begins. These are designed to see how a dog responds to a potentially frightening encounter, whether that’s a screaming child in a hospital hallway or a veterinarian in an animal hospital.

These tests are designed to check if the dog will pull away and be afraid of something that startles them:

  • Loud noise nearby (usually a bowl tossed a few feet away)
  • Sudden movements
  • Aggressive petting
  • Pulling on the tail, ears, and feet

Which Breeds Can Be Therapy Dogs?

Any breed of dog can be a great therapy dog. It’s far more about the dog’s individual personality and willingness to meet and greet people than it is about what they look like. I have approved dogs as large as a 185 lb Mastiff and as small as a 4 lb Toy Poodle.

Some Breeds Have Special Considerations

That being said, there are some concerns with dogs that naturally have a great deal of slobbering as they can be difficult to keep clean. So breeds such as English Bulldogs and Saint Bernard dogs could pose a challenge to keep clean.

How Do I Train My Dog To Be A Therapy Dog?

Step 1: Socialization

Let’s start first by saying that your dog has to want to meet and greet people. If you think your dog is awesome, but they are afraid of strangers or don’t actually want to interact with people, then they won’t enjoy being a therapy dog and will likely be refused at some point.

This doesn’t mean that a shy puppy or adult dog can’t grow into a wonderful outgoing dog, but it does mean that you’re going to need to do some work to help make this happen.

Puppy socialization classes and doggy daycare can be a great place for your dog to build basic social skills both with other dogs and with people. Confidence can be built up just like in humans.

Step 2: Basic Obedience

If your dog/puppy is social and outgoing, then the next step is to acquire some control with basic obedience lessons. Let’s be fair…the lessons are for you. Dogs love to please their pet parents and many will very willingly do what you request.

It’s when you as the “boss” don’t give your dog the structure and firm leadership that can cause your dog to ultimately fail.

What should your puppy learn in basic obedience to help them along the road to being a therapy dog?

  • Come when called
  • Sit on command (on the first request, not the 10th)
  • Lie Down
  • Stay

If your puppy can perform these tasks willingly and correctly on the first request, then you are well on your way. Next up – more stringent training!

Step 3: Next Level Obedience and Training

This is where we separate the pretenders from the true Therapy Dogs. Your dog will be put into strange places and be around strange-looking people (think doctors with masks on or people in wheelchairs) when they are working.

They need to be trained to accept new situations with calmness and confidence. When my Golden Retriever was going through training (my incredibly stubborn, mouthy, short attentio- SQUIRREL!!! dog was a little too much for me to train while I was recovering from neck surgery so I boarded her in a location that also had obedience training), this was the most important thing I wanted her to learn.

As part of her training, she ended up passing the Canine Good Citizen test. This is a program put together by the AKC (American Kennel Club) to help owners prepare their dogs to be good citizens to society.

There’s a great book that can help you prepare your dog for either taking the test or just training to be a therapy dog. The most recent edition can be found on Amazon here.

What Disqualifies A Dog From Being A Therapy Dog?

The most common reasons why a dog can be rejected from entering a therapy dog program are as follows:

  • They exhibit poor obedience. Therapy dogs need to be great citizens which means that they have to walk well on a leash, obey commands such as sit and stay, and not randomly bark or whine.
  • They don’t seem to like people very much. This may seem crazy, but not all dogs want to be petted by a lot of people or for an extended period of time. In these cases, I usually find that it’s the owner that wants to participate in a therapy dog program far more than the dog.
  • Conversely, they can like people too much. Dogs that want to jump and crawl all over people are not suitable as therapy dogs. Therapy dogs need to be calm and loving, not hyper and needy.
  • They have really poor oral hygiene. Having dental disease (tartar and gingivitis) isn’t just a gross thing but it can also transmit potentially dangerous bacteria to patients who could be immuno-suppressed.
  • They have a physical condition that makes being a therapy dog painful. Maybe they have arthritis or disc disease in their back. We go into more detail below about these issues.
  • You, as the owner, are not fun to deal with. Most people forget that there’s a human on the other end of that therapy dog. If you are hard to deal with or don’t like taking direction, your dog won’t make the grade.

When Does A Therapy Dog Get Retired?

The biggest deciding factor that determines when a therapy dog goes into retirement is likely when that dog decides that they are done.

How can you tell when your dog doesn’t want to be a therapy dog anymore?

  • They no longer display excitement or happiness when you put their special vest or t-shirt on them prior to going to their normal working location.
  • They balk at going into the front door of the facility
  • They lay down frequently once at the facility and appear non-interested in those around them.
  • They act as if they don’t want to be petted by strangers anymore

They Develop An Illness Or Condition That Forces Retirement

  • Cancer can be a frequent reason why dogs gets retired. This can be due to the physical stress that having cancer produces on the dog. Dogs that are receiving chemotherapy should be kept at home because of their immuno-suppressed state as well as potentially transmitting those drugs via their saliva to therapy recipients.
  • Arthritis can produce a chronic state of pain that the dog endures. Despite the use of pain medication, the dog may not want to (or be able to) stay active for as long as they usually would in their rounds as a therapy dog.
  • Older dogs can begin to get grumpier as they get older. Much like in humans, getting older can make a dog less tolerant of loud noises and being petted frequently in a way that they don’t like.
  • Anything else that changes how a dog feels or looks that could affect its ability to be a good therapy dog. A dog that develops a skin condition that causes sores or hair loss can be unappealing to patients, for example.

To Summarize – Can My Dog Become A Therapy Dog?

Any dog has the ability to become a therapy dog. If people compliment you frequently on just how sweet and well-behaved your dog is, then that is a great indication that others see the same great qualities in your dog that you do. In the end, train your dog well and then apply for a therapy dog program and see what happens.