A Helping Paw: Therapy Dog Training and Certification
By: Jeff Noce, Voyce President
Walking into a nursing home with your dog and seeing the face of an elderly resident light up as soon as she spots you. She pats your pup’s head and begins telling you about the wonderful dog she had growing up 80+ years ago.
Or sitting quietly in a library as a third grader reads Junie B. Jones to your dog. With each passage, the child grows more confident, knowing that the dog will never judge or correct them.
Or strolling down the halls of a university during finals week and watching stressed out students start to relax as they cuddle your pet and forget about studying for a while.
These are just a few of the many services performed by trained therapy dogs every day across this country. They can be found in nursing homes, funeral homes, disaster areas, hospices, schools and more…lifting spirits, reducing stress and evoking smiles and laughter.
The benefits of therapy dogs were recognized as early as World War II, when a female Yorkie named Smoky was allowed to stay in the hospital with her injured owner, Corporal William Wynne. Soon, the friendly pooch was making the rounds, cheering up other injured soldiers. Even after Corporal Wynne recovered, Smoky continued her work for another 12 years.
Since then, the ranks of therapy dogs have swelled into the thousands. Unlike service dogs, which are usually trained to specifically help their owners in a variety of tasks, therapy dogs go wherever and to whomever they’re needed.
If you’ve ever thought your pooch has what it takes to do this type of work, there are numerous organizations that test and certify therapy dog teams. Some of the larger ones include Therapy Dog International, Love on a Leash and Pet Partners.
Each organization has different requirements for certification, but in general dogs must be healthy, friendly, calm and well socialized. There are generally few, if any, restrictions on breed, size or age.
To get certified, start by looking for and enrolling in a therapy training class in your area. These programs will introduce your dog to a variety of situations they may encounter in their work such as wheelchairs, unsteady gaits, loud noises and sudden movements.
If you’re unable to find a class in your area, getting your dog’s Canine Good Citizen certification is usually enough to apply as a therapy dog team with some organizations.
You may be required to accompany a certified team on supervised visits to hospitals or nursing homes. The total number of hours varies depending on the organization. You may also need to pass an in-person exam.
Once you’ve received your certification, you might want to join a local therapy dog organization. They will provide you with support and guidance, and help you find places to volunteer your time.
As you become more experienced, you’ll learn the type of therapy work you and your dog enjoy most. For example, some dogs are drawn to children while others gravitate to adults with disabilities. Finding the best fit will help ensure you both have a long, happy career of spreading joy to those who need it most.
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