Therapy dogs have become popular for their benefits for people experiencing mental or physical illness. One study found that spending time with a therapy dog significantly reduced anxiety levels among people who were being treated for depression in a hospital setting. Therapy dogs can assist with the treatment process for multiple health conditions.

What is a Therapy Dog?

According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), a therapy dog has an owner who takes the dog to locations such as hospitals or schools to volunteer and make people’s lives better. For example, therapy dogs may go to children’s hospitals to visit with children who are recovering from surgery. These dogs provide comfort to people who are distressed or experiencing an illness or injury.

The AKC provides various therapy dog titles based upon the number of therapy visits a dog has completed. The types of therapy dogs include:

  • Therapy Dog Novice: 10 visits
  • Therapy Dog: 50 visits
  • Therapy Dog Advanced: 100 visits
  • Therapy Dog Excellent: 200 visits
  • Therapy Dog Distinguished: 400 visits

Therapy Dog vs. Service Dog

While the two may be confused, a therapy dog is not a service dog. The difference between a service dog and a therapy dog is that a service dog is owned by a person who is physically or mentally ill, and the dog helps just that person. For example, a service dog may help a visually impaired owner navigate around their home and community.

On the other hand, a therapy dog has an owner who takes the dog to multiple locations to volunteer and provide support and affection to people who are sick. Per the AKC, service dogs are permitted to enter places, such as businesses and airports, to assist their owners, but therapy dogs cannot enter locations where pets are otherwise not permitted.

How to Get a Therapy Dog

Any dog can become a therapy dog with the proper certification. According to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a therapy dog must be at least one year old, have a friendly, calm temperament and be comfortable interacting with people. A household dog can be trained, either at home or formally, to meet the behavioral expectations of a therapy dog and complete the certification process.

Therapy Dog Certification Process

Therapy dog certification involves registering with a therapy dog organization and then completing any of their training requirements. The organization may require basic therapy dog training, and your dog might be required to pass a therapy dog test. Once you select an organization, you can begin completing therapy visits.

Once you have registered with an organization and completed any of their therapy dog requirements, the next step is to begin documenting visits to make your dog eligible for certification through the AKC. After you complete the required number of visits for the level of certification you are seeking for your dog, you can register with the AKC and complete a therapy dog application, which requires the payment of a $20 fee.

Therapy Dog FAQs

Therapy dog frequently asked questions can provide additional information about the process of getting a therapy dog and obtaining certification:

  • Where can I take my therapy dog?

    Since therapy dogs are not service animals, they are not permitted to enter areas restricted to animals. Therapy dog access rights are not the same as those of service dogs, so it is important to check with an organization or business before taking your therapy dog there. Many hospitals, nursing homes, schools and mental health clinics allow therapy dogs, but you can contact a representative at these locations to inquire about their policies surrounding therapy dogs.

  • Does my therapy dog have to wear a vest?

    The AKC reports that therapy dogs typically wear vests with the name of the organization with which they are affiliated. However, this is not required.

  • What organizations use therapy dogs?

    Therapy dogs provide comfort and companionship to people with mental or physical illness, and they typically visit organizations including schools, hospitals, nursing homes and health clinics. The best way to assess if a local organization uses therapy dogs is to contact them directly.

  • Are therapy dogs considered pets?

    While any dog can become a therapy dog, these dogs are more than just pets. Therapy dogs have to have a calm temperament, be comfortable around people and be trained to interact appropriately with people in therapy settings. Pets with proper training and temperaments can become therapy dogs.

Mental Health Conditions that Can Benefit from Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs can be used to provide support, companionship and stress-relief to people with various mental health conditions. Therapy dogs for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and autism are common.  A review of the research shows that therapy dogs can be effective for lessening symptoms of depression and anxiety and improving behaviors in people with dementia. A second research review showed that therapy dogs are beneficial for individuals with autism, as well as other psychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia. Therapy dogs have demonstrated effectiveness in improving numerous mental health symptoms.

Additional Therapy Resources and Organizations

There are multiple therapy dog organizations that can provide training and certification opportunities, including:

In addition to providing certification and training, these resources can offer support, insurance and linkage to volunteer opportunities. Contacting one of these organizations can be a first step toward your dog becoming a therapy dog.

If you are in need of treatment for a mental health condition and co-occurring addiction, reach out to The Recovery Village. An admissions specialist can discuss treatment options with you via phone today.