A service dog sits next to its wheelchair-bound owner

Key takeaway

Therapy dog training involves socialization and skills training focused on teaching dogs how to best support their companion. Therapy dogs can offer support for individuals with a variety of health conditions, including physical limitations, anxiety, and more.

Dogs are much more than a person’s best friend—dogs can also be a form of therapy. Therapy dogs are dogs that are specifically trained to provide comfort and support to people in anxiety-provoking settings. This typically includes places such as schools, hospitals, and retirement homes. A therapy dog is like an around-the-clock friend that’s there to help people who are anxious, have physical limitations, are grieving, or are lonely.

But in order for a pup to become a therapy dog, they must undergo training and preparation so they can learn how to provide this comfort and support. But how does therapy dog training work, you ask? We’ll get into it below.

Continue reading the blog post below to learn more about how therapy dogs get certified, how to train a therapy dog, and more. We also discuss frequently asked questions about dog therapy training so you can be entirely prepared if you’re thinking about training a therapy dog. Alternatively, you can use one of the links below to skip to a section of your choice.

What Is a Therapy Dog?

You’ve probably heard the term “therapy dog” before, but you’ve also probably heard the terms “service dog” and “emotional support dog” as well. While the terms are often used interchangeably, they actually have different meanings. Each type of dog has different definitions that dictate how they provide support and the rules that apply to how they exist in public spaces and private residences.

  • Therapy Dogs: Therapy dogs provide comfort and affection to individuals and are certified to go to locations like hospitals, long-term care facilities, treatment centers, and schools. Therapy dogs are trained with basic obedience skills, but they aren’t trained to perform any essential tasks for the people they support. This is mainly where therapy dogs differ from service dogs. They do not specialize in any particular area of service. Therapy dogs also don’t have full public access under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They are only allowed in settings where they are invited to enter. A therapy dog’s main role is to provide comfort and support to other people, rather than their own handler. Sometimes professionals, like psychotherapists and social workers, will also use therapy dogs to help their clients. Any kind of dog can be a therapy dog if trained appropriately.
  • Service Dogs: Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks to help people with disabilities, which includes physical, intellectual, psychiatric, and other health conditions. A service dog is trained to specifically help their handler’s disability, and not other people’s. A service dog can perform a myriad of tasks, such as guiding blind individuals, alerting deaf individuals of sounds, and helping physically disabled individuals into wheelchairs. The goal of a service dog is to help their handler gain more independence in their everyday life. Service dogs are protected under the ADA, which allows them to enter all public places, even if animals/other pets are not allowed. There is no legally recognized service dog training, but they must be trained to perform specific tasks that their handler can’t do themselves due to their health condition.
  • Emotional Support Animals: Emotional support animals are known as companion animals, and they provide support and comfort for their owners with mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Emotional support animals are not trained/expected to perform any specific task to help their owners—their presence alone is meant to provide enough emotional support in itself. Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals are not allowed in public places. However, the Fair Housing Act requires that additional accommodations must be made for emotional support animals, even if the building doesn’t usually allow pets.

How Do Therapy Dogs Get Certified?

In order for a therapy dog to get certified, they must be at least one year of age. They also must be certified and registered with a reputable organization, such as the Alliance of Therapy Dogs and Therapy Dogs International. Their vaccines must also be up to date.

Some organizations also may require a dog to pass the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test, which is a two-part course that’s intended to strengthen the relationship between you and your dog. 

In order for your pup to pass the therapy dog certification test, they may also have to meet certain standards for their collar and leash. If your dog is too shy, or barks/jumps in excess, the tester may recommend additional training.

A therapy dog must be properly socialized from a young age. Socialization is a crucial part of therapy training, so it’s important to start socializing with your pup as soon as possible. This means frequently exposing your dog to new people and places, especially between 3 and 16 weeks of age, keeping the interactions calm and pleasant. 

Make sure to not overwhelm your pup with too many interactions. You should focus on developing a positive, strong relationship with your dog. A good therapy dog will be friendly, patient, confident, and gentle. They should enjoy human contact with both their owner and other people. 

How to Train a Therapy Dog

So now that you know how a therapy dog can actually get certified, we’ll discuss how to train your dog to be a therapy dog. There are a couple of ways you can go about therapy dog training. You can train a therapy dog yourself, or you can get your dog professionally trained. We’ll get into the differences between the two below, so you can make a more informed decision about which is the better option for you.

Self-Training

Professional therapy dog training can be expensive, so some owners opt to train their dog on their own. Self-training is a good option for owners who are more confident in their training skills and don’t need professional help.

If you’re interested in self-training your pup, learning the 10 basic commands in the CGC test⁴ is a good place to start. Therapy dogs are trained using positive reinforcement practices. You can also use Community Canine or Urban CGC guidelines to practice real-world scenarios to help your dog be better prepared.⁵

Professional Training

A trainer signals to a sitting dog in a grass field

If you’re not sure about training your therapy dog yourself, you can enroll your dog in professional training courses. You can find professional training courses by searching “therapy dog training near me”. It’s just important to make sure you work with a reputable vendor who will provide excellent training for your pup. 

Before signing up for any courses, do your research on the training organization—read reviews and ask other therapy dog owners for their opinions, as well as facilities that use therapy dogs. You want to choose the best possible training course for your dog.

Therapy Dog Training: Frequently Asked Questions

Can you self-train a therapy dog?

Yes, you can absolutely self-train a therapy dog. Self-training a therapy dog is relatively straightforward. To help with self-training a therapy dog, you should review the CGC test for the 10 basic commands. You can also get additional help by watching training tip videos on YouTube. 

How long does it take to train a therapy dog?

The amount of time it takes to train a therapy dog depends on various factors, such as the training process you choose, the age/breed of your dog, and any behavior problems they may have. A professional dog therapy training course ranges from 6-8 weeks long, so if you opt to self-train your dog, it will likely take around the same time or longer.

How much does it cost to train your dog to be a therapy dog?

The cost of therapy dog training will vary depending on the training route you take and the area you live in. Training costs can vary greatly between states and regions.

Final Notes

A therapy dog is there to help individuals through stressful and anxiety-inducing life situations. They provide necessary support and comfort for people who struggle with various mental illnesses. A therapy dog will work alongside their owner to help these individuals, and together the two of them will visit places like schools, hospitals, and nursing homes.

If you’re interested in training your dog to become a therapy dog, it’s important that you’re aware of what’s in store. But whether you train your dog yourself, or sign them up for professional training courses, your dog should be social, confident, patient, and able to take on the responsibilities of being a therapy dog. If you’re struggling with any behavioral problems that hinder your dog’s therapy training, like excessive barking, it’s important to figure out a treatment plan for them, which you can achieve with Dutch.

Dutch is a convenient solution for pet care and connects pet owners with licensed veterinarians right from the comfort of your own home. If you want to train a dog to stop barking, for instance, scheduling a consultation with Dutch can help you identify any underlying health conditions that may be causing excessive barking. The bottom line is that Dutch makes it easy for pet owners to get the care they need without having to leave their home.

References

  1. “Definition of a Service Dog vs. Emotional Support Animal vs. Therapy Dog.”American Humane,American Humane,https://www.americanhumane.org/app/uploads/2018/05/Definition-of-Service-Dog_3_7_18.compressed.pdf.

  2. “AKC Recognized Therapy Dog Organizations.”American Humane,American Kennel Club,https://www.akc.org/sports/title-recognition-program/therapy-dog-program/therapy-dog-organizations.

  3. “Canine Good Citizen (CGC).” American Kennel Club,American Kennel Club,https://www.akc.org/products-services/training-programs/canine-good-citizen/.

  4. “10 Essential Skills for Every Dog.”American Kennel Club,American Kennel Club, 24 Apr. 2015,https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/essential-skills-for-every-dog/.

  5. “AKC Community Canine.”American Kennel Club, American Kennel Club,https://www.akc.org/products-services/training-programs/canine-good-citizen/akc-community-canine/.