What is Assisted Therapy Dog Training?

Therapy dogs are often confused with service dogs but they are not the same. They are not considered “assistance” dogs either, under the law. Service dogs are legally protected in the United States under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Therapy dogs are not. This means that if you are disabled and you have a service dog, your dog can accompany you most places and even fly on planes with you in the cabin area. You cannot legally do this with a therapy dog, though some people abuse the law and try to pass a therapy dog off as a service dog.

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Therapy Dogs Definition

Therapy dogs are dogs that provide comfort, affection, and/or support to people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, retirement homes, and other places they may visit. These dogs may lessen a stressful situation or make someone feel better. They may visit a disaster area and let someone hug them. Any dog can be a therapy dog. They can be any breed, male or female, and any size. They must have a good temperament. Other characteristics they should have include friendliness, patience, gentleness, confidence, and they should be relaxed even in difficult situations. These dogs should enjoy being petted and handled even if they are petted by children who are clumsy or around elderly people who may be unsteady. Their primary purpose is to allow physical contact so they can make people feel better.

An “emotional support dog” is also not a service dog. They are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you are disabled and you use a pet dog for emotional support, your dog is still not a service dog.


Therapy dogs provide great benefits to people by making them feel better, especially during times when people are feeling bad. Whether the dogs are visiting kids in a hospital or disaster victims, they cheer people up. Just hugging the dogs can make people happier.

Requirements for Certification

Requirements for therapy dogs vary. There are a couple of national organizations that provide certification for therapy dogs. Many hospitals, schools, and other places that allow visits from therapy dogs work through these groups and accept their certification as proof that the dogs are well-mannered, good therapy dogs. In other cases, local hospitals, schools, and nursing homes may make their own rules about whether or not a dog and his or her owner may visit as a therapy dog team.

In general, the requirements for becoming a therapy dog are very much the same, regardless of which organization you work through. They are similar to the requirements for the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen program. The tests usually require that the dog can handle sudden unexpected noises; that the dog can walk on unfamiliar surfaces comfortably; that they are not frightened by people with canes, umbrellas, wheelchairs, or who walk in a strange way; that they accept friendly hugs; that they get along well with the elderly and children; and so on. You can find the requirements for the AKC Canine Good Citizen test here. If your dog can pass this test he should not have any trouble passing the certification for becoming a therapy dog.

Organizations that Offer Assisted Therapy Dog Training

Some AKC kennel clubs offer training for the AKC Canine Good Citizen test. Training for this test will prepare you to pass the Canine Good Citizen test and/or testing for a therapy dog program. You can also ask if your local pet store offers any similar training classes.

Therapy Dogs International can provide you with information about their testing requirements and upcoming tests.

You can also contact Pet Partners, another nationally recognized therapy dog program, for information about their requirements, registration, volunteer program and safety standards.


Therapy dogs perform a valuable service, usually in their local communities. They visit hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and make people feel better by offering a hug and letting people pet them.

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David is a retired dog behavior expert, professional dog trainer and a certified specialist in aggressive dog behavior. He co-founded Dog Remedy.