Therapy dogs provide comfort and encouragement for hospital patients, residents of nursing homes or children with developmental or physical disabilities. These dogs pass certification programs run by therapy pet organizations that evaluate their behavior, obedience and temperament, which allow them to work safely in medical care settings. If you want to volunteer your dog as a therapy pet, both of you need to go through the training process. While therapy pets are usually accepted into these programs at 1 year old, prior training helps prepare your dog for a career as a professional therapy pet.
Socialize your dog from puppyhood, starting at 7 weeks old, with other dogs and a variety of other people. Make puppy play dates with friends' dogs and take your puppy to a dog park. Invite friends to your home to gently play with and handle your dog. A therapy pet must be comfortable with strangers and other animals, so early socialization provides a solid foundation for a calm temperament.
Bring your puppy to a veterinarian to have all of his necessary vaccinations, as recommended by your veterinarian and state laws. The doctor will also examine your puppy's health and give you the vaccination schedule to follow. Therapy dogs must have documentation of all of their vaccinations, pass a health exam and be free of parasites.
Therapy Dogs International requires dogs registered with its organization to have current rabies, distemper, hepatitis and parvovirus vaccinations. Dogs must also have had a fecal test to test for parasites and a test for heartworm disease, both of which must be negative. Pet Partners has similar requirements.
Bathe and brush your puppy to get him used to such handling. A therapy dog must be bathed before visiting medical facilities to keep him clean and free of parasites, so your dog must be used to such cleaning. The handling also gets him used to people touching him, something necessary for therapy work.
Enroll your puppy, under 1 year old -- but older than 8 to 10 weeks old so he is weaned -- in the American Kennel Club's S.T.A.R. Puppy Program. This program consists of a series of six or more obedience classes taught by an AKC Canine Good Citizen-approved instructor. These classes teach basic obedience commands, including housetraining, and allow your puppy to socialize with other dogs and people. At the end of the program you receive a certificate of your dog's competency which allows him to continue on to other training programs.
Attend the AKC's Canine Good Citizen training program classes with your puppy. The S.T.A.R. program acts as a precursor to this program of more advanced training. Some therapy dog programs, such as Therapy Dogs International, require this training before allowing your dog to register with its organization. This program is generally a good way to prepare your dog for such training, even if not required. These classes teach more advanced obedience techniques, work on your dog's temperament and continue to socialize him.
To find classes in your area, contact your local SPCA, animal shelter or AKC breed-specific club (for pedigreed dogs), to see if they offer AKC CGC program classes; many of these organizations offer this program to all breeds of dogs.
Contact your local therapy pet training program to attend classes in person or attend classes online. Pet Partners offers training and certification for therapy pets, while Therapy Dogs International only offers registration with the organization. Dogs must be at least 1 year old, healthy, well-behaved and obedient to be accepted into such programs. After attending any required courses by such organizations, a trainer will evaluate both you and your dog as a team.
Register with a local or national therapy pet organization. There is usually a fee involved, which varies by organization. As of April 2012, Pet Partners charges a fee of $95 for each therapy pet team of one person and one pet. By registering with an organization, both you and your dog are covered under its special liability insurance when performing therapy work.
Perform therapy work with your dog at your local library, hospital, hospice, nursing home or shelter. The therapy organization you belong to can refer you to local venues in need of therapy dogs. Keep therapy sessions positive and upbeat so that they are enjoyable for your dog.
Dogs that have a history of biting people or other pets should not be trained as therapy dogs. Aggressive dogs or those with a history as guard dogs do not make suitable therapy animals and can possibly cause harm to those they are meant to help.
When choosing a young dog to adopt or purchase, look for one with a friendly, non-aggressive personality.
Don't choose a puppy or young dog based on his breed's reputation. Judge each dog individually; some therapy dogs are from dog breeds with an aggressive reputation, such as a pit bull or German shepherd. These dogs, with the right temperament and training, make excellent breed ambassadors.
Get your young dog comfortable wearing his special therapy vest. Therapy dogs need to wear this vest to properly identify them. Start by having your dog wear the vest for a few minutes at a time, working your way up to several hours.
The Good Dog Foundation is an animal-assisted therapy organization that serves the northeastern U.S., serving the New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut areas.
- Petfinder: Want to Train Your Dog to be a Therapy Dog?
- Therapy Dogs International: About TDI
- American Kennel Club: AKC’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Program
- Pet Partners: How to Become a Registered Therapy Animal Team
- American Kennel Club: Welcome to the AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy Program
- American Kennel Club: Puppy Play Time
- Pet Partners: How to Become a Pet Partners Volunteer Therapy Animal Team
- PetPlace.com: Me and My Buddy, Therapy Dog
- PetPlace.com: The Power of Dogs: How Your Dog Can Change Your Life
- American Kennel Club: 20 Steps to Success: The AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy Test
- Dog image by yellowj from Fotolia.com