How to Train a Therapy Dog

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

If you’ve ever felt a little bit down and found that being around your dog helped you, you already understand the benefits of a therapy dog. Therapy dogs can provide relief from anxiety, help individuals cope while grieving, and offer comfort to people in hospitals, nursing homes, living facilities, and other situations. Therapy dog teams can deliver inspiration to people at some of their worst and most lonely moments. 

Training your puppy or adult dog as a therapy dog is a fantastic way to give back to your community and help others. Not only is it a way to bond with your dog, but it can have incredible benefits for all involved. 

However, it’s essential first to understand what therapy dogs are and how to train a therapy dog. 

What Is a Therapy Dog?

Therapy dogs provide comfort for people going through physical and/or emotional difficulties. It is essential to distinguish that therapy dogs are not service dogs and are not emotional support animals.

Service dogs receive full public access per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and provide a specific service(s) for a person. This can be everything from guide dogs (for vision-impaired people) to diabetic alert dogs to seizure alert dogs. Emotional support animals do not require special training or certifications but do require a prescription from a qualified mental health professional. 

Therapy dogs are allowed in places where all dogs are allowed, and specifically, allow therapy dogs. They do not have special rights like service dogs. 

Additionally, therapy dogs are typically trained by their owners, and the two are part of a “therapy team.” Once trained and certified, the therapy team can visit elderly living facilities, people in hospitals, juvenile detention centers, medical facilities, and other organizations. 

Why Train a Therapy Dog?

Canine therapy benefits for humans are significant and may include lowering blood pressure and heart rate, reducing anxiety, and increasing endorphins and oxytocin. You may not know that there have also been studies showing that therapy dogs benefit from their “work,” as endorphins and oxytocin are higher in therapy dogs than average household pets.

But not just any dog can be a therapy dog, and you can’t just take your dog to visit people in hospitals. Therapy dogs do need certification from, and registration in,  a reputable national therapy dog organization. 

What Makes a Good Therapy Dog?

Therapy dogs come in all sizes and breeds; temperament is what matters. A certified therapy dog is friendly, patient, confident, and comfortable in all situations. They must be able to be petted, cuddled, and handled by unfamiliar people.  

Some of the essential skills and characteristics of your dog’s attitude include:

  • Social ability: How well does your dog connect with all kinds of people? Are they confident or dependent on others? Is your dog sensitive to unfamiliar persons? 
  • Touch sensitivity: How sensitive is your dog to being touched? Is your dog comfortable receiving affection from people?
  • Sound sensitivity: Is your dog sensitive to loud noises? What about in an unusual environment?
  • Stability: Is your dog easily startled when confronted with a strange or unknown object? How does your dog react to abnormal situations and environments?

While it may be common to assume all therapy dogs are Golden Retrievers, it’s just as possible and likely to see therapy dogs that are pitbull breeds. 

Smaller dogs can be great for sitting in laps, but larger dogs are tall enough to reach hospital beds. So, again, breed and size don’t matter at all. 

How to Train a Therapy Dog

It’s certainly never too late to become a therapy dog, but it is best to start training as early as possible. Proper and early socialization is key to a calm, cool, and collected adult dog. Have your puppy spend time around people of all different genders, body types, ages, personalities, and people who dress differently (hats are a common problem), people with facial hair, and people with various voices. 

General training, especially positive reinforcement training, is invaluable and necessary. While not mandatory, you’d be pretty lucky to have a dog that knows cues with no training. Therapy dogs in training should generally be:

  • Able to “leave it.” This is important when visiting hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and so on, where there are plenty of items that don’t need to find their way into your dog’s mouth, including medications and hazardous waste. 
  • Focused and not easily distracted. A therapy dog should be able to walk by another dog, a person, or anything tempting without reacting or chasing it. 
  • Able to follow basic cues, including sit, down, stay, come, and so on. 
  • Well-mannered. Your dog should be able to refrain from unwanted behaviors such as jumping, barking, or mouthing. These are undesirable manners for therapy dogs, but they can also be quite dangerous for the exact people you’re trying to provide comfort to in certain situations. 

Remember that having a successful therapy dog is a long game. It’s not as simple as deciding you want to teach them a trick, following a training schedule to teach said trick, and then in a couple of weeks, you’ve achieved your desired result. 

Learning to train a therapy dog requires a lot of work from both the dog and the handler. Make sure to trust the process, be patient, and know the commitment to training can be very rewarding. 

It may be worth it to consider working with a certified trainer to train your therapy dog using formal training. Working with a trainer allows the owner to have a clear path to success and to understand how the dog’s body language and behavior.

How to Get Your Therapy Dog Certified

There are no state or federal rules or standards for therapy dog training. Training requirements for certified therapy dogs will differ based on the registering organization. 

While not always required, a good stepping stone is to take an obedience course called the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program, followed by the CGC test. This test, recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC), is comprised of ten skill assessments, including sitting politely for petting, coming when called, and accepting a friendly stranger. A passing grade on the CGC test earns the dog the CGC title. 

Again this isn’t necessary, but if your dog can’t successfully complete these skills, they likely aren’t an excellent candidate or fit for therapy work. Additionally, completing the CGC test successfully may help get certain breeds of dogs approved in homes that typically have breed restrictions. 

A basic outline of getting your therapy dog certified looks like this:

  1. Socialize, socialize, socialize. Don’t overdo it, but it is crucial to introduce your dogs to new people, places, objects, environments, and experiences. Proper puppy socialization is crucial early on as well. 
  2. Complete a basic manners training program.
  3. Obtain the AKC Canine Good Citizen title for your dog.
  4. Enroll in and complete therapy dog classes.
  5. Complete the therapy dog evaluation and register with a national therapy dog organization.

Obtaining a therapy dog certification will depend on the therapy dog organization. In general, a therapy dog in training (and its owner) will:

  • Need to be at least one year old
  • Be up to date on vaccinations
  • Participate in a test
  • Be monitored by a tester during a specified number of visits to facilities

Trainers that reviewed this article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. The trainers that review our content are reviewed by other trainers to ensure that we have the best quality filters on our content. 

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Hallie Wells
Owner-Lumos Dog Training, Atlanta, GA 
Certified Professional Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)
Fear Free Certified Professional (FFCP)
Applied Animal Behavior Analysts (UW-AABA)