“How to make your dog a Therapy Dog” is part three of a four part series on dogs and mental health in collaboration with Elizabeth Sánchez Arvizu, M.A.’s #ReFrameAndReEnchant initiative on Psychology for Geeks.

Are you wondering how to make your dog a Therapy Dog?

Shortly after I adopted my dog Sunny, I found out about Therapy Dogs through what we affectionately refer to as “dogstagram”. At that time I was just getting ready to begin my Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy and I was very interested in learning more about how to integrate my dog into my future work through Animal Assisted Therapy as Sunny loves to meet other people and provide comfort and joy to them when she senses they need it.

While we worked on general obedience and agility training, her trainers have often commented on her temperament and how she would be well-suited for therapy work, so I started to research if this could be a good path for us.

I was surprised to find that it’s not easy to figure out how to get started. Here’s what I learned:

1. Think about what type of environment you want to volunteer in.

Therapy Dogs can volunteer in a variety of environments including, but not limited to:

They can also work with specific people groups such as first responders or work alongside you in professional roles such as occupational therapy, social work, and psychotherapy.

When you think about these possibilities, you’ll want to assess what kind of environments your dog feels comfortable in as well as where you feel comfortable. For example:

  • Do medical facilities make you anxious?
  • Is your dog comfortable around kids?
  • Can you remain calm in high stress environments?
  • Will you be able to handle first responder experiences?
  • Do you prefer volunteering in a group or individually?
  • Would your dog enjoy being read to?

Starting with your preferred environment matters for multiple reasons, but especially:

  • Sometimes programs and facilities work with a specific organization and you’ll need to know that before you get started if there is somewhere specific that you want to volunteer.
  • You and your dog are connected through their leash. If there is an environment where you feel anxious, they will feel your anxiety—and vice versa. You can better help those you are there to serve if you both feel confident.

Note: I have a much more in-depth list and worksheet to help you through this step available in my free guide:

2. Therapy Dog training is very similar to AKC Canine Good Citizen.

If you search “therapy dog training near me” on Google, you might find local training, but you also might not.

Every organization has their own requirements but they are all similar to the American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Good Citizen (CGC) exam. In fact, some programs actually require you to pass the CGC exam before going through their evaluation; however, most do not. In my experience, it is often easier to start with CGC and build your skills from there.

Note: Some organization evaluators also hold training classes. I’ve heard that this is especially helpful as they can give you targeted feedback for how your dog is progressing towards that organization’s standards and expectations.

3. Consider the lifestyle you want for yourself and your dog.

I know what you’re thinking, “How does my lifestyle impact where I get started as a Therapy Dog team?”

Surprisingly, this is one of the areas I see talked about the least but it can really help you narrow down an organization as well as to know what things you may want to ask about before you commit to their program.

Here are some things you may want to ask an organization:

  • Does my dog need a specific harness, collar, or leash?
  • Is my dog allowed to be on a raw fed diet?
  • Which vaccinations is my dog required to have?
  • Does the liability insurance cover my dog at work with me?
  • Are there any breed or disability restrictions?
  • How often are we required to volunteer?
  • Can my Service Animal be a Therapy Dog?

Note: If you don’t know the difference between Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and ESAs, please take the time to read the first part of this series. It’s a crucial starting place if you’re unsure about their rights and responsibilites.

Feeling ready to get started as a Therapy Dog?

If you’ve worked through all of the above environment, training, and lifestyle considersations then you’re ready to do your research on which organization is the right fit for you.

It’s important to know that Therapy Dog organizations are not regulated; however, there is a list of those who are recognized by the AKC which can be a helpful place to start your research.

On a national level, the AKC recognizes:

Note: All five of these national organizations require your dog to be a minimum of one year old. However, their chapter locations, registration fees, requirements, evaluation environments, and available training do vary.

Tip: You may find that you prefer to work with a local organization. Remember that if you have a specific facility or program in mind, you’ll want to start by reaching out and asking which Therapy Dog organization they work with.

I want to hear about your journey!

Even if you are just getting started, I would love to get to know you and hear about your journey to becoming a Therapy Dog team with your pup. Please feel free to reach out at @therapydogtalk and say hello. 🙂

If you are interested in learning more about Therapy Dogs, please check out my podcast Therapy Dog Talk.

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