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AKC GoodDog! Helpline Trainer Elizabeth Sandling teaches therapy dog classes and is a long-time therapy team volunteer with her Shetland Sheepdogs, Sandy and Nivy. Here she gives owners some helpful tips on becoming a therapy dog team with their canine partner.

Why Volunteer As a Therapy Dog Team: Therapy dogs provide affection, support, and comfort to people of all ages in hospitals, retirement homes, rehab facilities, nursing homes, schools, prisons, and stressful environments such as disaster areas.  These dogs can improve socialization, communication and encourage reading skills.

In situations where humans cannot keep a pet, it gives them an opportunity to spend time with a friendly, affectionate dog.  Studies have revealed that human interaction with a dog can lower blood pressure and stimulate the release of oxytocin, causing humans to feel calm and secure.

Because of the many benefits, there is a great demand for therapy dogs; and it is a wonderful way to volunteer.

The Right Stuff for a Therapy Dog: A therapy dog should be even-tempered and enjoy being petted and handled by people.  The dog should be able to calmly accept unusual and new circumstances, different places, sights and sounds.

Not a Service Dog:  A therapy dog is not the same as a service dog.  A service dog performs tasks to assist people who have a disability.  These dogs require extensive training and learn to provide specific services for their handler.  Because of the nature of their work, service dogs are allowed into buildings where other dogs cannot enter.  Therapy dogs do not have federally-granted legal access to public transportation, airplane cabins or public buildings as is afforded service dogs.  A service dog will often wear a vest stating “Please Don’t Pet Me” so the dog can focus on the specific needs of the person it is trained to help.

How Do I Train My Dog as a Therapy Dog: To become a therapy dog, it is important that the dog be able to respond to basic obedience cues and have the temperament to succeed when visiting in therapeutic environments.  Basic obedience cues include sit, down, heel on a loose leash, leave it, and stay.

A great place to start this training is to take your dog to an AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) class, which is the prerequisite for many therapy dog programs. CGC classes cover basic obedience skills and also important manners for therapy dogs, including sitting politely for petting and walking calmly past another dog.

At the end of most classes, the CGC test is given to the students and those who pass are eligible to receive the CGC title from AKC and a frameable certificate.

More information: /dog-owners/training/canine-good-citizen/ for more details on how your dog can become an AKC Canine Good Citizen. Find a CGC test and/or evaluator in your area:  

Therapy Dog Certification: There are many nationally recognized therapy dog organizations, and different organizations have different requirements for certification.  Most will not evaluate or allow an animal to visit before the dog is one year of age.

Some require a therapy dog class, and if not required, usually a class is highly recommended.  In a therapy dog class, your dog will receive training to become familiar with working around other therapy dogs and handlers, other people, and equipment commonly seen in therapy dog situations. Equipment could include walkers, wheelchairs, crutches, and other medical devices.  An alphabetical list of therapy dog organizations and information on the AKC Therapy Dog program, can be found here.

All therapy dogs registered with AKC are eligible for the AKC Therapy Dog titles, which includes a beautiful patch modeled by our cover dog Bullitt, a member of the AKC Canine Partners program. Your dog is not registered with AKC? Sign up today and get involved in the many fun AKC events and programs.