If you’ve recently read our posts on what a therapy dog is and how to train one, you may be curious about the next step: how to certify a therapy dog. The process is pretty simple actually – but not necessarily easy! However, if this is what you and your dog were made for, the effort you put in is entirely worth it.


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How to certify a therapy dog

As many of you may already know from reading our previous posts, there are a number of volunteer therapy dog organisations around the US. As a result, there are also a number of routes for certifying your dog for therapy work. If you’re keen to get involved, find an organisation near you – do a google search, or contact hospitals and nursing homes in the area to find out which therapy groups are active. Start with Therapy Dog International or Pet Partners if you’re stuck since both operate nationwide.

Once you’ve found an organisation that fits your needs or goals, find out what their registration and certification process involves. Everyone is different, so it’s impractical to make a comprehensive guide on certifying a therapy dog that fits every organisation, however, there is a general testing pattern that most crowds seem to follow.


Evaluating your dog’s obedience

This will usually be done through some variation of the AKC Canine Good Citizen test, or even just the straight test itself. Become familiar with what’s evaluated, and work on each area bit by bit. The goal is to have your dog reliably obedient even in environments that are unfamiliar and highly distracting.

A few examples of exercises you may be tested on:

  • Walking on a loose leash through a crowd. Your dog should not greet or jump up on anyone.
  • While on a loose leash, you may also be expected to change directions, spin around, walk backwards – generally testing your dog’s ability to walk nicely with you in any situation.
  • Commanding your dog to sit-stay and/or down-stay, after which you walk away. This could be for a few moments, or 3+ minutes (or both)
  • Having your dog sit calmly while pots are banged, strangers run past, and evaluators touch and brush them in various places (particularly ears, paws and tail).

Your dog can not shy away or show signs of fear, over-excitement or aggression at any point.


Evaluating your dog’s temperament

Despite what some may think, the therapy dog temperament test can be even more challenging than the obedience evaluation. This is often the area where potential therapy dogs teams trip up.

Evaluators will observe your dog’s natural response to situations such as:

  • standing around while there are other therapy dog-handler teams nearby
  • children rushing in, throwing balls, skateboarding, jumping rope and generally acting like kids
  • strangers approaching with walkers, canes, wheelchairs and crutches. In addition, you may walk through noisy crowds or groups of people who are making potentially scary movements like running up to your dog or throwing out their hands to greet them.
  • people dropping objects like their cane, pots, food or pills and/or making loud noises, such as moving chairs or coughing.
  • greeting strangers, particularly people who stagger over or pat them too roughly (as can happen with elderly, or those with motor control issues)

Again your dog should show a calm, steady demeanour at all times. Since you’ll often be meeting people who are more vulnerable, it is especially important that your dog can show an amiable, stable nature even when the unexpected happens – this is what evaluators will be looking for.


Evaluating you, as a handler

It’s easy to forget that the dog is only one-half of the therapy team. Your character is an important factor too, as you will be representing your organisation whenever you’re out and about. What most organisations would want to see is a clean criminal record, a friendly, sociable and polite manner and great reliability. In addition, you should be able to demonstrate a genuine, positive relationship with your dog – reading their body language, praising when appropriate and redirecting them without force or intimidation. Chances are, they will be watching for this throughout the evaluation process, not at any particular point.


A few side points

Many organisations will have strict policies on hygiene. As you will often be visiting individuals with compromised immune systems, keeping you and your dog’s cleanliness tip top will be essential. You may also be required to prove that your dog is up to date on his vaccinations.



If you pass?

Congratulations! Your hard work has paid off. You can enjoy being a beacon of light in someone’s otherwise dull or stressful day, bringing joy in the form of soft fur and wagging tails.


If you fail?

It’s okay! There’s no limit to the number of times you can apply. At least half of those that attempt the therapy dog obedience and temperament tests fail. Most of these owners never attempt to have their dog re-certified, thinking their pet just isn’t cut out for it. This is far from true – sometimes you’ve got the right teammate, but it’s just not the right time. She might just need a couple more years to enjoy being a young buck before she can excel as a therapy dog.


In conclusion

This has been a basic overview of how to certify a therapy dog, and should by no means be taken as gospel. It’s always best to learn what’s required by your organisation of choice first. At the same time, it can be useful to have a general idea of what’s to be expected before you decide to jump into something new. If you find yourself struggling with any area of training, it’s a great idea to get involved with a training club or find yourself a professional trainer to work with. The APDT is a handy resource for finding suitable trainers in your area if need be.



References and recommended reading:

  • Therapy Dog International – http://www.tdi-dog.org/
  • PetPartners – http://petpartners.org/
  • AKC. Canine Good Citizen. American Kennel Club. Retrieved from http://akc.org
  • APDT. How to Choose a Dog Trainer. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Retrieved from http://apdt.com

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