Curling up with a canine companion is definitely one of life’s purest and most simple pleasures. How many times have you wished you could bottle that wonderful feeling of comfort and peace that comes from petting a dog so you could open it up and have that feeling again when things get rough? That’s the basic premise behind therapy dogs: dogs that are trained to be well-behaved and provide comfort and affection to those in need of it.

Therapy dogs are used in all kinds of situations and locations these days. Among the most popular are nursing homes, hospitals (especially pediatric and oncology wards), physical rehabilitation centers, hospices, homeless shelters, schools and learning institutions, and family service organizations. Therapy dogs bring daily comfort to those living with cancer or other serious illnesses, children and adults with developmental or cognitive difficulties, veterans reintegrating to society after combat tours, vets and civilians undergoing rehab for serious physical and psychiatric injuries and conditions, and senior citizens, just to name a few.

Deuce, a therapy dog at Walter Reed, and his owner Harvey Naranjo greet Sgt. 1st Class Andrew R. Allman, one of the patients at the occupational therapy gym.In fact, research has shown that interacting with therapy dogs provides a host of physical and mental benefits: it can reduce blood pressure, calm anxiety, and help promote physical and psychological healing. Whether it’s just petting a dog who lies quietly be your side, or interacting with and playing games with the dog, the benefits of animal assisted therapy are pretty easy to see. And in addition to interacting with the dog, visit recipients are also able to interact with the handler; they can share their stories about dogs they had, or what they are going through, or just enjoy a good conversation with another person.
Therapy dogs have also proved themselves to be great learning aides for children with learning disabilities and/or who are on the autism spectrum. Having a calm, non-judgmental, comforting presence beside them while they tackle difficult tasks, such as learning to read, helps these children greatly. Being able to read to the dog or have the tactile comfort of the dog’s fur or the pressure of its body curled up against them can make a world of difference to a child.

So what does it take for a dog to be a therapy dog?  Does your dog have what it takes? While there are no breed or size restrictions for therapy dogs, there are some definite skills and traits a good therapy dog needs to possess. For starters, it’s recommended that a therapy dog earn its AKC® Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) certification, as this program comprises many of the skills needed by a good therapy dog. For more information on the CGC, check out our blog post here.

Therapy dog Butch visits the Little House in Groveland, CA.In addition, a good therapy dog needs to be well-mannered, patient, tolerant, non-confrontational, obedient, and good with both adults and children, as well as other animals. He should be friendly and enjoy human interaction, but should not be overly exuberant or excitable, so as not to overwhelm or possibly accidentally injure those with whom he interacts. He should welcome human contact, and not shy away from it.

Some of these skills can be taught; others are part of a dog’s nature. Some dogs are just born with the right kind of aptitude and temperament for therapy work. If you think your dog could be one of them, DogWatch encourages you to contact one of the training and certification programs listed below. It could be the start of a rewarding journey for both you and your dog.

If you have experience working with therapy dogs, or if your dog has worked as a therapy dog, we’d love to hear from you.  We have only explained what it is – – it would be even better to hear from someone who has first-hand experience!

AKC Therapy Dog Qualification

AKC-Recognized Therapy Dog Organizations

Additional Therapy Dog Organizations by State

Therapy Dogs International

Therapy Dogs United

Delta Society

Photo Credits (top to bottom):

Jill Swank for Camp Atterbury Public Affairs via Flickr

Elizabeth M. Lorge for the U.S. Army via Flickr

Steve Ryan via Flickr