If you’ve become familiar with our previous therapy dog posts, today we’re putting it all together! We’ll look into how to make your dog a therapy dog, step-by-step, and what to aim for at each point.


How to make your dog a therapy dog


Step 1: Assess your dog’s suitability as a therapy dog

We went over this in more depth in What Is A Therapy Dog, so definitely give it a read if you’d like extra detail. The bottom line is, not every dog has the right disposition for therapy work. Your pet should love all people immensely, while still being calm and respectful. Affectionate, but not boisterous. In addition, your dog should be confident, easy going, trainable, and amiable with other animals – no signs of shyness, fear or aggression will be tolerated by any therapy organisation.


Step 2: Find a local therapy dog organisation to join

Discover who’s active in your area and whether their schedules and policies suit you and your dog. Since every organisation has their own registration and certification process too, it’s worth knowing who you’re wanting to join up with before you start working on a particular training program with your dog. Pet Partners and Therapy Dog International both operate nationwide if you’re looking for a starting point


Step 3: Socialise, desensitise and train (a lot!)

Find out what your organisation needs to make your dog a therapy dog and systematically work towards their requirements. As each group is different, we can’t get too specific on what to train. However, generally it’s a great idea to work on:


Many therapy dog organisations test basic obedience in their evaluations. In addition, it’s useful to have your dog reliably trained to follow standard commands like sit, down, stay, come and leave it. As an example, you may need to tell your dog to stand-stay while someone brushes their coat, or “leave it” when a patient drops their medication on the ground.


Therapy dogs need impeccable manners. Think of them as guests at the hospital, school or nursing home – they should be on their best behaviour at all times. A few examples include walking nicely on leash, ignoring other animals, sitting calmly for pats and brushing, greeting strangers politely (no jumping or mouthing!) and staying calm if you (their handler) have to leave the area for a little while. Most dogs don’t innately know what’s expected of them, so it’s a great idea to condition these behaviours well before you’re evaluated.

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. — Retired Tech. Sergeant, pets Mollie, a three year old Sheltie at Langley Hospital Jan. 30. Mollie does about 10 visits throughout the Hampton Roads Area. This is her third week visiting Langley Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Zachary Wolf)

Socialisation and desensitisation

One of the most crucial aspects of making your dog a therapy dog is exposing them to the weird (from their perspective) and wonderful sights, smells and sounds that they may encounter in their work. First of all, your pet should be 100% happy and social with every type of person imaginable – any age, gender, race or medical state. To achieve this (in addition to them having a naturally social temperament), you need to show them all the different kinds of people in the world – or at least as many as you can. Some people can be soft and gentle, others loud or grabby. For his own sake, your dog should be comfortable interacting with any kind of individual.

Finally, you should familiarise your pet with loud noises, wheelchairs, elevators, crutches, walkers, canes and anything else you can think of that may surprise them. Many therapy dog organisations conduct temperament tests to observe how your dog responds to unpredictable situations, and this is often where potential teams tend to fall down.


This is a very basic overview of training expectations. If you want to make your dog a therapy dog, definitely take a look at How To Train A Therapy Dog for deeper insight. It’s a terrific idea to attend a few group classes with your dog, particularly ones that work toward the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen title. This helps you work on obedience, manners and desensitisation all at the same time. Furthermore, it teaches you to work as a team while there are plenty of distractions around.


Step 4: Have your therapy dog candidate assessed by your organisation of choice 

Once you feel that you and you dog are ready, set up a time to have your dog evaluated (or attend their next group evaluation). As we touched on earlier, most organisations will have an obedience component as well as a temperament test. It’s easy to think it’s all on the dog, but you, as a handler, are being observed too. Demonstrate a positive, attentive relationship with your dog as well as good, amiable character with others. You will be representing their organisation if you become certified, so it’s in their best interest to approve people who will help give them a good name.


That’s it! 

The rest of the journey is on you – follow the direction of your organisation from here on out.

If you like the idea of attaining recognition for your hard work, the AKC offers titles based on the number of therapy visits you perform as a team. Your dog doesn’t need to be registered as a purebred dog, as this is open to all breeds and mixes. For more information, have a look at their therapy dog programme.

With the basic information above you should have a good idea of how to make your dog a therapy dog in a few achievable steps. While it may not happen overnight (in fact some owners have to wait a few years for their pups to settle down) becoming a therapy dog team could be one of the most enriching experiences of your lives.



References and recommended reading:

  • Odendaal, J.S., Meintjes, R.A. (2003). Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behaviour between humans and dogs. The Veterinary Journal, 165(3), 296-301.
  • UCR. (2006, May 26). Therapy Dogs Provide Relief to Stressed Out Students. University of California, Riverside Newsroom. Retrieved from http://newsroom.ucr.edu/
  • Pullen, L.C. PhD. (2011, May 18). Animal-Assisted Therapy Can Decrease Anxiety Before an MRI. Medscape. 
  • Marcus, D.A. et al. (2013). Impact of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Outpatients with Fibromyalgia. 
  • O’Haire ME, McKenzie SJ, Beck AM, Slaughter V (2013). Social Behaviors Increase in Children with Autism in the Presence of Animals Compared to Toys. PLoS ONE 8(2)
  • 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