In the past few years Therapy Dogs have become very popular in medical settings and schools.  They are used in hospital settings to bring comfort to patients or trained to actively participate in Physical Therapy programs.  Therapy Dogs also participate in the R.E.A.D. Program (Reading Education Assistance Dogs).  R.E.A.D. Therapy Dogs, visit libraries and schools as part of a fun Animal Assisted Activity which allows children to read to the dog one-on-one.   


The major ingredients for these situations are personality and temperament.  Every therapy dog must be even-tempered, good natured, well trained and able to accept handling by strangers.     While your dog may be a wonderful family pet, that does not mean they will automatically make a great Therapy Dog.  It is important to not rush a young dog into Therapy Visits.   All dogs need time to mature before they are put to work.  It is best to not pursue testing until your dog is at least 2 years of age. 


The following are things to consider before pursuing a career in Animal Assisted Therapy.




Does your dog receive regular veterinary care including yearly vaccinations, heartworm testing and prevention and a fecal exam?

Does your dog accept bathing and grooming with ease?

Is your dogs coat healthy and free from parasites?




Have you done formal obedience training with your dog?

Will your dog respond to verbal cues without the need for harsh reprimands or physical force?

Is your dog able to greet someone while maintaining a “sit” rather than jumping up?

Are you able to walk your dog on a loose leash while your dog is wearing a flat collar?

Do you know how to “read” your dogs emotional state to keep him feeling safe and comfortable in stressful situations?

Does your dog ride well in the car?





Will your dog accept clumsy petting, wild gestures or loud voices by strangers?

Has your dog ever shown any signs of aggression towards people?

Does your dog recover quickly from startling situations?

Will your dog respond responsibly around food?






Has your dog been exposed to a variety of outdoor locations?

Is your dog comfortable walking on a variety of surfaces, ie. tile, hardwood, stairs, gravel, etc.?

Has your dog visited a variety of indoor locations like a bank, school, store,  ridden on an elevator, etc. 


Has your dog met the following types of people:


Young, old, tall, short, different racial backgrounds, men with beards, babies, people wearing glasses, people in wheelchairs, unruly children, people wearing hats, kids on bikes, etc.


Below is a list of great socialization opportunities.  Be creative and look for new ideas of your own.


Walk around shopping centers

Check out community fairs and craft shows

Explore downtown shopping areas

Go into pet stores and practice leaving objects alone

Visit nurseries and garden shops (great smells)

Exercise your dog in parks and playgrounds (especially while children are present)

Attend local after school sports events

Visit friends with dogs

Attend a parade


Remember to always ask permission before taking your dog into any facility.  Therapy dogs and/or Therapy dogs in training do not have public access.






Before embarking on therapy dog work, you need to answer the following questions regarding yourself.


Do you enjoy social interactions with strangers?

Are you comfortable around a wide range of people different from yourself?

Are you comfortable around people suffering from a serious or terminal illness?

Can you focus on your dog and interact with people at the same time?

Are your willing to work on an on-going basis training your dog?

Are you willing to commit to a regular visitation schedule?




Effective Communication Skills


Effective communication skills for therapy visits aren’t too difficult to develop and become easier with experience.  You can start practicing these at home.


Passive Listening (silence): Make sure you aren’t doing all the talking.  Silence in itself communicates acceptance and conveys trust that what the person is sharing is important and deserves being heard.


Door-Opening Messages: There are a lot of simple conversation-starting sentences you can keep in your bag of tricks.  An example is “That’s interesting, then what happened.”  Good standbys are to ask the person about dogs they may have owed in the past.  Remember that door-opening messages are always open-ended questions (questions  that can’t merely be answered with a Yes or No).


Acknowledgement Responses: These responses can be used to let the person know you are paying attention.  Non-verbal cues can include nodding, leaning forward, smiling, etc.


Try some of these verbal cues:


“I see”

“Uh huh”


“I understand”

“Is that right”



“No Kidding”

“That’s really something”


Active Listening: Active listening contains no actual message but mirrors (feeds back) the person’s own comments.  By repeating in your own words what the person has told you, the person feels that you understand and are interested in what she is saying.


Positioning yourself for better contact: Sit close to the person and maintain eye contact.  You can use your dog’s position to reach people.  Place a chair next to the bed and have your dog on on it so that she is at eye level with the person.  You can then position yourself next to your dog so that you too are included in the exchange. 




An effective therapy dog team is one in which both the canine and the human partner are allowed to make decisions.


Respect your dog’s senses.

After all, they have a much stronger sense of smell that you and can often pick up chemical properties in a person that you cannot detect.  Their body language may say to you that she doesn’t feel comfortable interacting with a particular person.  When this happens, it is your job to first analyze the situation then to react responsibly to your dog’s         body language.


It is possible that this reaction is due more to the dog’s lack of comfort around certain medical equipment.

Yes, if your dog has not been exposed to medical equipment it can make them uncomfortable.  You can try to encourage them to approach the equipment and pair it with a few yummy treats.  Do not force your dog to approach something that they are afraid of, this will only make them more fearful.   If you find that your dog is reluctant work around something specific, address it during a training session, not during a Therapy visit.    


If after that, they still do not want to interact, you must respect their wishes.  It may be that Therapy Visits are not an appropriate choice for your dog.


You must also respect the person’s concerns.

It is possible that a person may be disinterested or have negative feels towards dogs.  Don’t be offended!  Simply make a graceful exit and seek someone else to visit.


Can your dog offend someone?

Absolutely!  If someone reaches out to give your dog a hug and they turn their backs on the person, you sometimes see a sad facial expression followed by a comment such as “She doesn’t like me.”  You can salvage the situation and respect your dog’s wishes at the same time.  Your first reaction might be to give a reason for the dog’s lack of interest such as “He’s really tired today” or “I think he needs a drink of water.”  At the same time, you can sit down beside your dog and casually pet them while engaging in a conversation with the person.  Try to divert the persons attention by asking open-ended questions, ones which can’t be answered simply by a Yes or a No.


You can also start telling cute little anecdotal stories about things your dog has done or ask the person about dogs they have known.  Become an active listener and give the person a chance to do most of the talking.


What happens if the person is curious but afraid of dogs?

You can increase the person’s comfort level by keeping your dog at about a six-foot distance from the person.  Kneel down and begin petting the dog while you are engaging the person in a conversation.  This will give the person an opportunity to observe without feeling threatened.


If the person indicates a desire to touch the dog, but is still nervous, you can make this more comfortable in a variety of ways:


  • One very effective method is to have the person pet the dog on its back. This part of the canine anatomy is less threatening than an active tongue or mouth full of teeth.


You Can also put the dog in a ‘down-stay”.  This works effectively with children who can then get down to the dog’s level.


If the person is still reluctant to touch the dog, you can demonstrate some of the commands your dog knows or show off some of their favorite tricks.  The person will begin to see a well-mannered companion and feel more relaxed.


Most of all, remember that your primary responsibility in therapy visits is for the welfare of your dog.  Never allow a staff member of a facility to insist that your dog interact with a person that either you or your dog are not comfortable with.  You, as volunteers to the facility deserve respect too.



Stress decreases a dog’s ability to fight off disease.  A therapy visit is at least mildly stressful to a dog because of the change in environment and people.  Dogs can usually handle mild stress as long as it is not combined with many other stressful things.


NEVER go into rooms where masks are required!  Look for signs requiring masks or restricting entrance before visiting a room.


Keep your dog FAR AWAY from any body fluids/discharges (e.g., urine, feces, blood, pus, sputum).


Keep him far away from any equipment in hallways and rooms (e.g. gurneys, hospital monitoring equipment, iv stands) since something could roll over toes or get twisted in the leash and fall on him.


Avoid areas in which chemicals have been freshly used.


To Minimize Stress


Allow your dog plenty of rest before and after visits.


Limit frequency of visits to his tolerance level.  Some dogs can only handle one or two visit per month while others enjoy weekly visits.


End each visit while your dog is still enthusiastic.  Avoid ending when he is overtired.


Keep your dog well hydrated.  Ask the staff for water for your dog if they are in need of a drink.


Restrict the number of people petting your dog at the same time.  Know who is touching him and where the hands are being placed at all times.


NEVER leave your dog alone with strangers or patients.


Groom or pet your dog all over daily.  Include handling tail, paws, ears and muzzle.  Dogs that are used to lots of “touch” in many places will be less stressed when others pet them on therapy visits.


If you notice signs of stress, end the visit and evaluate what can be done to ease stress in the future.


Do not force your dog to interact.  He should have a choice in whether to interact with someone.


Signs of Stress in Your Dog


            Facial expression changes from relaxed to tense.

            Yawning occurs, signifying attempt to release facial tension

            Ears and tail press close to the body

            Body or legs develop shakes or tremors

            Major muscle groups tense

            Dog pants excessively

            Dog whines or barks

            Dogs loses vitality and willingness to engage in the visit



Attitude changes occur in dog.


            Clings to handler

            Jumps on or climbs on handler for security

            Unwilling to socialize happily

            Hides behind handler or keeps handler between patients and itself

            Breaks fundamental training

            Looks for an escape route or doorway


Physical stress which prompt handler to have dog examined by a vet:





            Open wounds

            Patchy hair loss




Techniques for Reducing Animal Stress


During the Visit:


            Alternate hands-on activities with fun performance-type activities

            Take frequent time-outs

            Use exercise and games during time-outs to release tension

            Provide fresh cool water during time-outs

            Use a mobile platform for small dogs to reduce handling stress

            Monitor the dog’s body language and attitude constantly

            Pre-condition dog for appropriate touch


After the Visit:          


            Give the dog a quiet undisturbed area to rest

            Use mild exercise with no mental stress to help alleviate emotional stress

            Spend a little quality “play time” with your dog and choose his favorite game


Stress is not necessarily a negative thing.  As long as you are aware of the symptoms and are attentive to your dog’s needs, you can prevent excessive stress which could terminate your therapy volunteer efforts.  Remember, your dog depends on you for his well-being, thus giving you the ultimate responsibility for knowing the difference between healthy and excessive stress.





Have you decided by now that a therapy dog career might fit your dog well and are you ready to become a member of that team yourself?  Have you done your homework in preparing both your dog and yourself?


There are two different types of Pet Therapy Programs:


Animal Assisted Therapy

 Goal -directed intervention in which the dog is incorporated as an integral part of the treatment process.  In addition to the animal handler, a human service provider is essential to the encounter.


Animal Assisted Activities

Animal oriented opportunities for motivational, educational, and/or recreational benefits to enhance a person’s quality of life.  This is a “meet and greet” philosophy in which the focus is on enjoying and welcoming interactions with people.


Here are a few things to consider when selecting a program for yourself.


Individual or Group Visits:

Something you might consider is whether you prefer individual visits or group visits.  With individual visits, your dog is the only therapy dog visiting at any one time.  Some programs emphasize group visits in which the visit takes place in a central room with several dogs or other animals interacting with the patients at the same time.  Still others encourage teams to arrive as a group yet do their visiting individually within the facility.  There are many approaches and you need to consider your preferences before registering with a program.


Time Commitments:

Are you concerned about the amount of time you have to devote to therapy visits?  Note whether the program has requirements in this area.


Facility –Specific Programs:           

Some of the programs are established and run by the staff of the facility itself.  They may require that you sign up according to their guidelines and only at their facilities.


Types of Patients:

Do you feel comfortable with particular populations?  If so, make sure the program you are interested in schedules visits in facilities that serve these populations.


Scheduling Obstacles

Before beginning the process of registering with a program, ask if they schedule visits at times when you will be available.  For example, some programs may only schedule on weekdays, during the day.  Will your schedule accommodate this?


Animal Assisted Therapy

Are you interested in getting involved with Aniaml-Assisted Therapy (AAT)?  Remember that AAT requires that you work directly with a qualified therapist who sets goal-directed activities which are documented as an actual part of the person’s therapy plan.





Below are organizations you can contact to obtain information about Therapy Dog Testing:


Therapy Dogs, Inc.                                                    

P.O. Box 5868                                                                       

Cheyenne, WY 82003                                                           




Therapy Dogs International

88 Bartley Rd.

Flanders, NJ 07836