Dog Training – What Training Does My Dog Need to Become a Therapy Dog?

What is a therapy dog?

A “therapy dog” is someone’s pet that is highly trained, can be easily controlled around other dogs, is very social and enjoys interacting with all ages and types of people and has been tested and certified through a recognized therapy dog organization. Typically the dog is certified with one handler, usually the dog’s owner, as a therapy dog/handler team. Once certified these teams, if invited, may visit hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, and other places for the purpose of interacting with residents of those facilities providing they maintain their certification. Unlike a service/assistance dog, a therapy dog and their handler have no special rights of access as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act. You can find information on the legal definition of a service/assistance dog at

FMI – Service, Assistance, and Therapy Dogs – What is the Difference Between a Service/Assistance Dog, an Emotional Support Dog, and a Therapy Dog?

Who registers therapy dogs?

There are several therapy dog registries. Therapy Dogs International ( ), PetPartners, formerly The Delta Society, ( ) and Therapy Dogs Incorporated ( are three of the more well-known registries that have credentialed dogs in Maine. Each registry has its own test criteria, rules, evaluators and associated fees. Typically a dog/handler team may only be registered by one registry, and evaluators usually are only certified by one registry.  The best place to get current information on each registry’s requirements is at their respective websites.

Does a therapy dog need to pass a test to be certified?

Reputable therapy dog registries will require a dog and handler team to pass a test before their being certified. This test is necessary to protect the public, the people, the facility the dog may visit and ultimately the therapy dog/handler team. The fees paid to therapy dog registries are used in part to pay for liability insurance that protects all parties in case of an accident such as a dog bite. There are some very disreputable websites where you can register your therapy dog and get a certificate without requiring a test. These “registries” typically do not include any insurance should an accident occur. The reality is that if you and your dog are not certified by a reputable organization, you could be financially liable for any and all damages and could possibly be subject to criminal charges should something go awry during a visit.

What are the test requirements to be a therapy dog?

The test criteria for most registries are usually a superset of the American Kennel Clubs (AKC) Canine Good Citizen Test.

The following assessment is based on requirements of Therapy Dogs International.

Registries typically require that the dog be at least one year of age, is current on all vaccinations, have a veterinary health certificate and is licensed by the state before they are eligible to be tested. In my experience, most dogs are not mature enough or sufficiently trained so that they can pass the test before 18 to 24 months of age.

A dog must be able to sit, down and stay reliably when given a single visual or verbal cue. Other basic obedience behaviors involve being able to walk with their handler on a loose leash, to come when called, and to leave things when asked to leave things. Additionally, dogs should be non-reactive to any person or dog and only minimally reactive to audible and visual stimuli. When your dog is on your side, they should not move towards another dog or a person unless they have been released to do so. A dog that lunges or barks at a person or another dog during a test would be considered “not ready.”  A dog must also allow a stranger to examine their paws, their eyes and to brush them without excessive wiggling and without growling or biting. A dog that paws at or mouths people would also be deemed “not ready.”

Based on my experience as an evaluator for Therapy Dogs International, the following parts of the test are the ones that are usually the most difficult for a handler and their dog:

Reaction to Another Dog – This test demonstrates that the dog can remain under control around other dogs. Two handlers and their dogs approach each other from a distance of about 10 yards, stop, shake hands and exchange pleasantries, and continue on for about 5 yards. The dog should not show any negative reaction or pull towards the other dog. The handler should not allow the dog to visit with the demo dog. Negative reaction means a dog showing signs of disobedience, aggression or avoidance (shyness). Having an excellent attention behavior and an automatic sit can be very helpful for passing this part of the evaluation.

Reactions to Distractions (Leave-It) – This test is in two phases.  In phase one a stranger will offer the dog a treat. The dog must ignore the food.  In phase 2, the handler, with the dog on a loose leash, walks past food on the ground (placed within a distance of three feet) and, upon command, the dog should ignore the food. If the handler spots the food, a command of leave it can be given and the dog is not permitted to pick up the food. If the handler does not see the food and consequently does not give a command, he or she is not scouting adequately. If the dog gets the food, they fail the test. As scavengers, dogs have a natural instinct to check out food. An excellent attention or leave-it behavior will help a dog pass this test.

Supervised Separation – This test demonstrates that a dog can be left with another person, typically a stranger, and will maintain its training and good manners. The owner will go out of site for three minutes. The dog does not have to stay in position but should not bark, whine, or pull away from the person holding the leash. Dogs need to be well socialized and comfortable around all types of people, including strangers, to pass this part of the test. This is not so much a training issue as one of helping your dog learn to cope emotionally with being left with someone new in your absence. Lots of gradual practice is essential to passing this part of the test.

Visiting with a Patient – The TDI Certified Evaluator will test the willingness of each dog to visit a person and ascertain that the dog can be made readily accessible for petting (i.e. small dogs can be placed on a person’s lap or can be held, medium and larger dogs can sit on a chair or stand close to the patient to be easily reached.). Shyness, aggressiveness, jumping up, and not wanting to visit are reasons for automatic failure. The evaluator should be looking for a dog that willing approaches and obviously wants to interact in a friendly manner yet, is not rambunctious. If a dog does not have an outgoing personality and is not interested in meeting people they may be able to pass the test but may not enjoy doing therapy work; asking such a dog to be part of a therapy dog/handler team is unfair. Dogs that have been trained to shake or do other things with their paws often fail this part of the test because they initiate contact with their paws without being cued to do so. For a patient taking blood thinning medicine in a nursing home or hospital, the risk of a scratch from a nail can be very serious. Thus all pawing behavior should be discouraged.

Walking on a Loose Leash – Your dog’s ability to be under control while on a leash is tested throughout various parts of the TDI test. The dog must be wearing either a flat buckle or snap-in collar (non-corrective) or a harness (non-corrective). Pulling on the leash, jumping up, shyness, not wanting to visit, showing aggressiveness, not walking on a loose leash are all automatic failures. There must always be slack in the leash.

How can I get my dog prepared to pass the test?

If you have a young puppy and your hope is to someday become a therapy dog and handler team, the most critical thing you can do is to socialize, not overwhelm, your puppy in a positive manner before they are 16 weeks of age. Getting them accustomed to crutches, wheelchairs, different noises and flooring is crucial. Always keep in mind, however, that even if you do everything right, this does not necessarily mean that your dog will be cut out to be a therapy dog.

FMI – Puppy Socialization and Habituation

From a training perspective you are not required to take any classes or even to train your dog in order to take a therapy dog test; however, there is no question that enrolling yourself and your dog in reward-based training classes is very beneficial. It is rare that a dog and handler team that do not take formal training class will pass an evaluation.  Typically a person would complete several dog training classes before they and their dog would be ready to take the test. For example, if you are starting with a young puppy, the optimal choice would be to go through Puppy Headstart, Basic Manners, and all upper-level classes, maybe more than once. A class taught by someone who is familiar with the test is one of the best ways to prepare.

FMI – How to choose a dog trainer

What happens if my dog and I do not pass the test?

If you and your dog take the test and you are not ready, you can usually take the test again. Most evaluators will suggest what you need to work on, although they do not necessarily offer advice on how to train your dog to do better. Also, if an evaluator has concerns about your dog’s basic temperament, they may suggest other activities instead of therapy work. The fact is, not all dogs are suitable for being therapy dogs; that does not mean they are not great dogs.

What happens after my dog and I pass the test?

Once a dog and handler have passed a test, they must then register with the therapy dog registry before they are considered certified. This typically involves submitting current veterinary records along with your application. One of the main benefits of registering, which is typically done annually and involves a fee, is the liability insurance that comes with the registration. If your dog were to hurt someone while working as a therapy dog, you would typically have some coverage. If your dog is not appropriately registered, you may be personally financially and legally liable for your dog’s behavior and subsequent actions. Institutions should require that you provide proof of registration and proof of insurance before allowing you and your dog to visit with people at the facility. Their failure to do so does not necessarily remove or limit your liability.

On a personal note, I always advise people that some dogs that can pass the test may not enjoy doing therapy work. Your first responsibility is to your dog, not to the people you visit. If your dog does not enjoy therapy dog work or later shows signs that they no longer enjoy the work, it is time to stop.  Shed, one of our dogs, was certified with my wife, Paula, as her handler. Paula took Shed on one visit, and although she was a real sweetheart, she clearly did not enjoy meeting and interacting with strangers. She retired after one visit. My dog Tikken and I did therapy work for a few years, but then one day she hesitated as we were entering one of the nursing homes we visited. When she did that I second time I knew she was ready to retire and I allowed her to do so.

So after we are registered, how do we get started doing therapy work?

If you wish to visit healthcare facilities as a therapy dog/handler team, you should contact the facility ahead of time rather than just showing up with your dog. Typically it would be the activities director or volunteer director you will need to connect with to schedule your visits. Most facilities will need to see proof that you and your dog are certified and have insurance. They may also require that you go through their volunteer training program due to laws covering patient privacy and confidentiality.

Most registries require that you reregister and pay an annual fee to keep your certification and insurance current. Some may also require that you take the test again.

When is a therapy dog/handler team considered to be working?

Typically, a dog/therapy team is usually only considered to be working as a therapy team when; 1) they are with the certified handler, 2) they are volunteering their time, and 3) they are on a leash connected to the handler. If your spouse or partner is certified with your dog and you are not, the dog would not be considered to be a therapy dog when working with you. Most registries do not cover your dog when they are at your home or if you have your dog at your place of employment. If you are a mental health professional and want to use a therapy dog as part of your practice, you should check with your employer and your personal insurance provider to make sure you have adequate insurance coverage. Likewise, if your dog were to bite someone in your home, it is doubtful that you would be covered by the registries liability insurance. Lastly, if you are not holding the leash and something happens, you may not be covered by the registries insurance.

What if I do not have a dog but want to get one so we can become a therapy dog/handler team?

Not every dog is going to be able to pass the test to become the canine half of a therapy dog/handler team, so selecting the right dog will be very important in increasing the odds that your dog will pass. I strongly encourage you to work with a certified professional dog trainer that is familiar with the test criteria who can offer objective advice. In my opinion, that means that they have absolutely no financial interest in your purchasing a dog or a puppy. Any organization or individual that is trying to sell you a dog may not always be as objective as possible about a dog’s potential for becoming a therapy dog. While puppy temperament tests have their place, there is no research that supports that they are predictive of a dog’s future suitability for therapy work. Nor does getting a puppy whose parents were therapy dogs guarantee that the puppy will pass a test at a future date. No one can guarantee that a dog will be suitable for therapy dog work.

FMI – Finding the Right Dog for You and Your Family

Research studies have demonstrated that if either parent is shy or timid, the puppies will be timid. Shyness or timidity is very likely to make a dog unsuitable for therapy dog work. Either the dog will find the work very stressful or will not be able to pass the test. Another major factor in a dog’s suitability will be their environment and training that occurs during their critical socialization period which occurs between eight and sixteen weeks of age. A certified professional dog trainer can be of great assistance in helping you develop a socialization and habituation plan for this period that optimizes a puppy’s odds of being good therapy dog material.

I believe that you will have the best probability of passing the test by getting a puppy that you socialize and train yourself with therapy work in mind. A dog’s temperament, a key factor in their suitability for therapy dog work, is determined in part by genetics. When choosing a puppy, you will want to meet the parents so you can assess their temperament. If you do not have experience in this area, you would be advised to work with a certified professional dog trainer or certified dog behavior consultant who has experience in this area. They will not be able to guarantee that a puppy will pass a future therapy test, but they may be able to indicate that a puppy would be unlikely to pass a test.

Recommended Resources

Articles on Don’s Blog (

Service, Assistance and Therapy Dogs – What is the Difference Between a Service/Assistance Dog, an Emotional Support Dog, and a Therapy Dog?

Puppy Socialization and Habituation

How to choose a dog trainer

Finding the Right Dog for You and Your Family


Web Sites

Therapy Dogs International  – ( )

PetPartners, formerly The Delta Society –  ( )

Therapy Dogs Incorporated  – (


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