Millions of Americans each year work with therapy dogs to alleviate the symptoms of conditions like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and autism. Sometimes referred to as emotional support animals (ESAs), these animals provide significant comfort and benefit to their owners when engaged with correctly. They are exceptionally common for combat vets and people who struggle with mental illness who may not otherwise qualify for a service dog.
Unfortunately, there’s a significant amount of confusion in our society about exactly what constitutes a therapy dog in the first place. Truthfully, a therapy dog requires no certification and isn’t really protected in the same way a service dog is. Understanding what goes into finding a therapy dog is the best place to start if you’re considering an adoption for your own needs.
What Qualifies a Dog as Being Therapeutic?
Any animal can technically be a therapy animal under United States law. There is no specific certification that designates your dog to be “special” in the same way as a service dog. That said, having your therapist or care team write a note indicating your dog’s therapeutic status will allow you to take him on airplanes and into restaurants with you. It may also prevent a landlord from evicting you due to a no pets rule.
What it won’t do is allow you to take your dog everywhere simply because he is a therapy dog; that’s a permission only granted to service dogs.
Be very wary of online services purporting to certify your dog as a service animal or therapy animal. These are very often costly and for the most part fake. The consequences of claiming that a regular dog is a therapy dog or service dog can be dire, ranging from additional roadblocks for the disabled to stress bites and injuries.
Understand that true service dog certification starts with months of training – often somewhere between 6 months and 24 months. The only qualified service dog certification organization that has demonstrated a reliable and trustworthy dedication to real service dogs is the U.S. Service Dog Registry. They do not certify therapy dogs. Should you wish to adopt or utilize a therapy dog, you will be solely responsible for adoption, training, and management.
Choosing the Right Dog
Not every dog should become a therapy dog. Like service dogs, dogs who serve in a therapeutic role should be calm, even-tempered, capable of handling stress, and nonreactive in a variety of stressful situations. Any evidence of fighting, aggression, food aggression, intolerance of other animals, intolerance of people, or intolerance of handling is a direct indicator that your dog is not prepared to be a therapy dog.
To be clear, your dog may be an excellent best friend, but that doesn’t mean he should serve in the therapeutic role. Just as not every human should be a therapist, or dentist, or doctor, or teacher, not every dog is right for every job.
Of course, your dog should also enjoy serving in a therapeutic role, too; if he clearly attempts to hide during anxiety attacks or shies away in fear at loud noises, ask yourself if he will truly enjoy serving you in this fashion. Remember: he can still be helpful to you and cathartic without being a therapy animal.
Best Breeds for Therapeutic Interaction
There’s no one breed that is better or worse than the other when it comes to therapy animals. At the end of the day, most dogs can be calm, even-tempered, and able to withstand stress if they’re trained correctly from puppyhood. That being said, certain breeds are better known for calm demeanors than others.
For best results, seek out breeds well-known for their intelligence and friendly nature. Dogs are high-energy, prey driven, or prone to running off at the very least need significant work before serving in the therapeutic role, but may simply not be right for the job, either.
Some of the following breeds make excellent therapy dogs:
- Golden Retrievers
- German Shepherds
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
- Full-size Poodles
- Great Danes
Each of these dogs has something in common; they are adorable, friendly, and highly intelligent, making them exceptionally easy to train. Some, like the Chihuahua, get a bad reputation for snapping or biting, but this is almost always related to poor owner management and/or lack of training. Others, like Vizslas and Golden Retrievers, are well-known the world over for their people-pleasing attitudes and friendly nature.
Skills Training: What Can a Therapy Dog Learn?
If you decide to move forward with adopting a therapy dog, training should be an important part of the post or pre-adoption process. Even though it isn’t required under U.S. law, it is still highly recommended and encouraged to train your dog for effective therapeutic support. So what exactly can your dog learn? The options are vast, but you should pick and choose skills that are best suited to your individual condition. Common skills include:
- Basic manners
- Sit, lay, stay
- Ignoring distractions
- Safe navigation around objects (e.g. medical equipment)
- Bringing you liquids or medication at a certain time
- Distress tolerance during meltdowns
- Self-harm interruption
- Grounding techniques for dissociation
- Tolerance of people and/or animals
- Remaining focused on the handler at all times
- Any of the skills on the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen list
Many of the skills on this list are the same as the skills required for certifying service dogs. The only difference is that if your dog slips up once in a while, he or she isn’t going to lose his certification as a therapy dog in the same way as they might for a service dog. Even if you don’t train your dog in specific skills, he or she will still need obedience training and focused training to ensure that she can work free of distraction.
If you’ve reached the end of this article and you’re still considering adopting a therapy dog, you have two options ahead of you. Firstly, you can adopt a dog that’s already trained by a reliable breeder. Alternatively, you can adopt a puppy who has yet to be trained but has the right temperamental requirements to fill the job. Whichever you choose, understand that owning a therapy dog will naturally take work in management over time. The rewards, however, are well worth the investment.Tags: therapy dogs