What Makes a Good Therapy Dog?
We’ve featured many amazing therapy dogs and service dogs making a difference over the years on our site, at events, and in our documentary series.
But there are so many more dogs out there having an incredible impact, especially as therapy dogs every day. There is more and more research about how they make life better. What is it though that makes a therapy dog so good at what they do?
Does Breed Matter?
Yes, and no. We recently did a post about dog intelligence and what makes certain breeds more obedient than others and the answer might surprise you. An expert on the matter, Stanley Coren breaks down dog intelligence into 3 categories, only one of which can be solely attributed to breed. Much like certain dog breeds are known for their intelligence, some breeds of dogs might be more inclined to being affectionate or empathetic. When it comes to being an ideal therapy dog though we’ve found it’s the individual dog that is special.
We recently did a post on Bridgette who is a rare breed among therapy dogs. You can read more about her HERE.
What Exactly is a Therapy dog?
Different than a Service dog or an Emotional support animal, therapy dogs have a unique place in our society. Both service and emotional support dogs are directly paired with an individual and generally trained to assist with that person’s unique disability. Emotional support animals have less specified training and often offer people with emotional or psychological trauma comfort and affection. Though their owners may also have physical disabilities, these dogs are not afforded the same exceptions as service dogs in terms of being permitted places where dogs aren’t allowed. They are often registered by their owners after bonding rather than being certified first.
Check out this recent article all about the impact therapy dogs can have on people who are in the hospital. Plus see wonderful rather large Therapy Dog Olie in action and hear about the benefits for hospital patients and staff, even though he is not a little lapdog by any means. He puts a smile on everyone’s face and helps reduce stress.
Generally, therapy dogs offer support to many, rather than just one individual. In the case of dogs like our best Fren Gizmo from Gizmo’s Frens, they can be life-savers and make such a difference with hundreds of thousands online and in person.
They may even have started off as an emotional support dog when their owner made the decision to share their talent for soothing with the world. Therapy dogs can serve a variety of communities from hospitals and schools to nursing homes or the scene of a tragedy.
No matter the location, all therapy dogs serve a similar purpose; to inspire affection and confidence in the people they meet.
You can also read this guest post from Cathy Armato on her Therapy Husky Icy and the amazing work they do together.
How can I tell if my dog could be a Therapy dog?
The SPCA identifies three major qualifiers that can indicate whether your dog is suited to being a therapy animal.
- The first qualifier is your dog’s personality: your dog must have a calm temperament. A dog that’s incredibly affectionate but tends to show it by jumping, pawing or licking, might not be the best choice for people who may be easily frightened in a vulnerable setting.
- The second qualifier is that your dog is a “people dog”. If you think your dog would be a good therapy dog, you have to really think about how they would react to constantly being introduced to strangers. Your dog may have infinite patience with you and your family but not be so into the idea of a classroom of kindergarteners learning to read.
Our wonderful friend Bocker Labradoodle was always happy to greet anyone with a big kiss and a cuddle. He was an amazing therapy dog and is missed dearly. I loved his Bocker smooches. The third qualifier is that your dog is non-reactive. As well as being faced with strange people and places on a regular basis, therapy dogs may also be in settings where there are lots of loud sounds or unexpected situations in which it would be crucial they not react adversely. If your dog is easily spooked or distracted they may not be the best fit as a therapy dog. That doesn’t mean they aren’t still perfect for offering support to you and yours, though!
If your dog does seem to demonstrate these three characteristics and they are over a year of age, it’s quite possible they’d make an excellent therapy dog.
We also recently did a story on Storm, an adorable rescued therapy dog who’s mom perfectly describes how she knew Storm would be so good at what she does.
“Storm has a very infectious waggy disposition! She actually won a prize at our local summer fair this year for the waggiest tail. Right from the beginning we knew we had a very special dog, she was so placid and well behaved. She loves attention from anyone and is wonderful with children.”
Registering a Therapy dog
Registering your dog as a therapy dog varies depending on your location. Generally, you want to look for a reputable organization that can help facilitate and arrange for you the types of visits you’d like your dog to go on.
Do some research first. If you’d like your dog to work with children, a program like R.E.A.D. might be a good place to start looking. If you’d like your dog to work in hospitals or nursing homes you can look into programs that focus more on those areas like St. John’s Ambulance in Canada.
Dozer the Great Dane proves any dog big or small can make a difference.
Bottom line, a good program is likely going to have some sort of application process or training program that you need to go through before they arrange visits for you- and this is actually a good thing. There are several places online where you can register your therapy dog for a fee, but having your dog ‘registered’ isn’t going to get you in the door to actually make use of that certification to help others.