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What is a therapy dog and is your dog a good candidate?


What do therapy dogs do? Therapy dogs visit nursing homes, retirement homes, hospitals, schools, libraries and other places where emotional support is needed. Therapy dogs bring happiness, comfort and love to seniors, sick people, the disabled, children and others who can benefit from the loving attention of a canine.

Therapy dogs don’t require intensive specialized training but they must still be taught basic canine obedience, as well as how to properly act in a variety of settings and situations. They must be friendly, gentle and comfortable meeting new people and should behave reliably in a variety of different situations.

Have you ever wondered if your dog has what it takes to be a therapy dog? It can be any breed of dog, large or small, young or old but not all dogs have the personality and temperament needed to be successful at it. They must love people and truly enjoy being around them while being hugged, kissed and petted (not merely tolerating the attention).

A therapy dog needs to walk nicely on a leash, at the handler’s side. A dog that pulls on their leash can pose a safety hazard. They should not jump up on people or bark during a visit.  Naturally, therapy dogs need to be properly socialized with people. But they also need to be socialized with other dogs. Very often, dogs and handlers will do team visits, so it’s important that a therapy dog is able to get along well with other dogs.


Therapy dogs need to be obedient, and come reliably when called, even in high-distraction environments. They should be able to greet people and respond to affection while maintaining a sitting or standing position so they don’t overwhelm frail patients or frighten small children. They can’t jump onto beds or laps uninvited, or put their mouths on people.


Good therapy dogs respond reliably to commands to resist temptations, such as “leave it,” which is essential for their own health as well as the patients they are visiting. A dropped pill can be hazardous to your dog and the “leave it” command is an essential one for your dog to know.


A therapy dog must tolerate being petted on every part of its body, including the ears, tail and feet. Some patients may have problems with motor skills and muscle control, and their petting can be awkward or unintentionally rough. Any signs of aggression towards people would disqualify a dog as a certified therapy dog.


Therapy dogs may encounter all sorts of strange and startling things, such as loud voices and noises, shouting, crowds or a suddenly dropped tray. Although we can’t expect them to ignore these things, they should be able to recover quickly and not try to run away. The dogs will also encounter crutches, walkers and wheelchairs and need to safely maneuver around them without fear.


A therapy dog needs to be bathed and brushed often, especially right before a scheduled visit. Their nails need to be kept short to avoid accidental scratches. Their skin and coat should be healthy and free from any sores or skin irritations. They require current vaccinations and annual vet check-ups.

Good therapy dogs tolerate being dressed up in silly hats, costumes or outfits that make people laugh and brighten their spirits. This is certainly not a requirement or an everyday thing but it is a fun way to celebrate holidays with your therapy dog. If your dog knows a trick or two it’s something fun they can do to entertain on a visit.


If you’ve read all this and think you and your dog have what it takes to be a therapy dog team please fill out the application form.

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