Therapy dogs are certified to provide emotional support, companionship and comfort to people experiencing physical or mental health conditions.

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.

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 depressionanxietypost-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.

Megan Hull
Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
Jenni Jacobsen
Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has over seven years working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health diagnoses. Read more

Hoffmann, Andreas, et al. “Dog-assisted intervention significant[…]ith major depression.” European Journal of Integrative Medicine,October 2009. Accessed May 23, 2019.

American Kennel Club. “What is a therapy dog?” Accessed May 23, 2019.

Alliance of Therapy Dogs. “How do I get my dog to be a therapy dog?” March 23, 2017. Accessed May 24, 2019.

American Kennel Club. “A therapy dog is not a service dog.” April 13, 2017. Accessed May 24, 2019.

Virues-Ortega, Javier, et al. “Effect of animal-assisted therapy on […]ers: a meta-analysis.” Health Psychology Review, 2012. Accessed May 24, 2019.

Maujean, Annick, et al. “A systematic review of randomized con[…]sychosocial outcomes.” Anthrozoos, April 28, 2015. Accessed May 24, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.