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Everyone needs a helping hand (or paw) once in a while. Therapy dogs are good for people who are struggling with mental illness, psychological conditions, PTSD, physical problems, or any other type of handicap that prevents them from living a normal life. Dogs are great for therapy because of their innate gentleness and emotional intelligence, which is why many pet owners seek advice on therapy dog training and how to get their dogs certified.

Therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort and affection to people in retirement homes, hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, schools, disaster areas, and anywhere else that people may need a fury shoulder to lean on.

Many people that have a hard time communicating with other humans will form strong bonds with canines. These bonds help them cope with the struggles that they face everyday.

Therapy dogs are not assistance dogs. Assistance dogs include seeing eye dogs and canines that are specifically trained to help people with disabilities perform certain tasks in their everyday lives.

Therapy Dog Training
Photo: Army Medicine

Therapy dogs do not perform any tasks, they simply comfort anyone that may need them, including children with learning disabilities or lonely seniors.

Therapy dog training is a rewarding process for both owner and pet. The certification process for a therapy dog is understandably very precise and requires knowledge of the rules and regulations surrounding certifying your dog. In this article, we’ll discuss the ins and outs of getting your dog certified for therapy.

Therapy Dog Training: How To Get Your Dog Certified

So, you’ve trained your dog and you think he is ready to work in the real world. The place to start with the certification process is making sure you and your pup are compliant with the regulations set forth by Therapy Dogs International, an organization that registers, trains, and evaluates therapy dogs.

Firstly, you and your dog must pass a test for suitability to make sure that you’re the right fit for the job. Your dog must be at least one year old, good-natured, and healthy. By healthy, the organization means that he must have a veterinary checkup at least once a year, as well as conform to certain standards.

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These standards consist of mandatory rabies vaccinations (1, 2, or 3 year vaccines) administered by a veterinarian only. Other vaccines that must be administered are distemper, hepatitis, and parvovirus (a contagious disease whose symptoms include fever, diarrhea, and loss of appetite). A negative fecal test must be done and a negative heartworm test must be completed within the past year if the dog isn’t on preventative medication for heartworm disease.

The handler is also subject to certain evaluations. You must be of good character (not a criminal) and there is no minimum age restriction. If you are underage, a person eighteen years or older must accompany you on all visitations, and your parent or legal guardian must sign the registration forms.

Therapy Dog Training
Photo: USAG – Humphreys

Applicants aren’t required to take any therapy dog classes. Therapy Dogs International doesn’t offer them anyway, but you can find them through other organizations if it is something that you’re interested in. A quick google search will help you locate any therapy dog training classes in your local area.

If you are foreign to the country and not a citizen, your process as a handler is a little different. In order to apply for registration, you must have a letter of recommendation from a veterinarian and a copy of the test certificate or form for your dog that has been awarded within the past three months. Letters of recommendation are required from the places you and your dog are planning to visit and work at as well—these letters must be on the official stationary of the institution in order to prevent forgery.

Though these rules might seem a bit tough, they are not without purpose. Owning and working with a therapy dog is a task that comes with much responsibility. The rewards that come from the work you’ll do are far greater than any hoops you have to jump through to get your dog or dogs to the point of suitability.

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There are test fees as well. The test fee for one dog and one handler is $10.00. The test fee for one dog and two handlers is also $10.00. However, two dogs and one handler is $20.00 and two dogs and two handlers is $20.00 as well. Send in the fee with the necessary materials and documentation, and once Therapy Dogs International receives it, their review process will begin.

The tests and evaluators

Sending in your materials is the kick-start to getting your certification, but there’s more to come. After reading the above section, your question is probably, “What happens next after the application is received?” The answer is evaluation.

Therapy Dogs International has a team of evaluators throughout the country. These people meet with you and your dog and determine whether or not you are appropriate for the job. The evaluator then administers a test to you and your dog. There is a new Therapy Dogs International test that is being given to potential teams and it first begins with a temperament exam on your pet.

Therapy Dog Training
Photo: State Farm

Your dog’s temperament is the general attitude he displays towards people and other animals. It is the combined acquired and inherited physical and mental traits that influence his behavior. Temperament testing is done to evaluate an individual dog’s temperament through a series of tests.

The tests measure traits including confidence, stability, friendliness, aggressiveness, shyness, protectiveness, play drive, self-defense instincts, and prey instincts. They will also measure your dog’s ability to distinguish between threatening and nonthreatening situations.

After the temperament evaluation, the dog is then taken into simulated situations involving hospital-like settings. These situations are realistic and have thirteen individual tests. These thirteen tests assess the way the therapy team behaves in situations and around people such as the faculty check-in desk, volunteer coordinator, hospital personnel, patient on crutches, patient in a wheelchair, patient with a walker, other visitors or patients, and going through hospital entrances or exits.

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How you and your dog behave in each situation and act with each individual is determinative of how qualified the two of you are to work as a therapy team. The evaluator will be watching everything from your dog’s movements to your facial expressions. He will be monitoring both of you for any signs of discomfort or agitation.

Every evaluator has extensive experience with dogs and their owners who are seeking to work in the therapeutic industry. These simulations are able to test the reactions of your dog to certain stimuli. For example, in the test involving hospital personnel, the person will have an object in his or her hands that they will use to startle the dog. They might drop a bedpan, shake a can of pebbles, snap a clipboard, or do something else to make a loud noise to test your dog’s startle response.

Therapy Dog Training
Photo: DebMomOf3

Another example of the details of a simulation is when there are groups of volunteers, hospital personnel, patients, and/or other visitors. This is designed to test the way you and your dog mingle with a crowd. The dog also will be asked to navigate a tricky hospital exit or entrance that has random objects (trash cans, chairs) blockading or obstructing it.

The test consists of Phases I and II. In Phase I, the dogs are tested as part of a group, the minimum number of which is two. The dogs are to stand eight feet apart on the left side of their handler. They are not permitted to interact. This phase tests the way in which your dog interacts with other dogs. During this Phase, he must wear a non-corrective dog harness or flat buckle/snap-in collar. The second Phase tests the dog’s reaction to unusual or atypical situations. These situations can include loud noises, different sets of people, and other strange settings.

Is your dog ready to be a therapy dog?

Most experts in the field of therapy dogs believe that these kinds of dogs are born, not made. Of course you can teach a dog good manners and how to behave in public, but the love, compassion, and affection that therapy dogs must show cannot be learned. Likewise, just like humans every dog is different and you cannot predict what a dog will do when put under stress.

A therapy dog must be be tolerant and outgoing to all people and all other animals. If you believe that your dog has what it takes to be a therapy dog, you should seriously consider bringing him to a dog training facility in your local area. Before you spend the time and money on the lengthy certification process, getting a little training under your belt would be very beneficial.

Therapy dog training will help you understand your dog in a different way and it works to foster the bond between the two of you. Not only that, but it will prepare you both for what’s to come with the testing procedure and help you and your dog prepare properly. Once you feel you’re ready, a quick phone call to Therapy Dogs International is all it will take to get the ball rolling. Good luck!