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The ESA Registration Of America

How to Certify a Therapy Dog: A Step-by-Step Guide


Therapy dogs are beneficial little buddies for a wide range of individuals, from stressed out students and lonely seniors at retirement homes to children with autism and recovering patients in hospitals. These dogs have one primary job: to provide companionship, affection, and stress relief to their people.

Therapy dogs aren’t limited to any one size or breed. Any dog, with the right temperament and training, can become a therapy dog. Whether you have a dog that you want to certify as a therapy dog or are thinking of adopting a furry friend in the future, you need to understand the certification process to determine if therapy dog certification is the right fit. 

Below, we’re outlining the complete guide to certifying your therapy dog. From picking the right pup to necessary training and testing, you’ll know all of the important qualifications before you get started. 

How to Certify a Therapy Dog: A Complete Guide

You can’t just wake up one day and decide to make your dog become a therapy dog. The dog has to be of the right temperament and it must be well-behaved based on the standards of the certifying organization you’re working with. 

Step 1: Adopting the Right Dog

First, you must have the right candidate. If you don’t have a dog already, look for one that enjoys human contact and thrives on affection and love. They should be friendly to strangers and show no signs of aggression. 

If you have a dog, ask yourself if they meet these qualifications. 

  • How do they act when strangers come to the house? 
  • Do they respond well when passers by stop for pets? 
  • What would happen if the dog got yanked or handled clumsily? 
  • Have they ever bitten anyone, snapped, or shown signs of aggression? 

These are all things you must consider before continuing with the process. If you don’t feel confident that your dog would meet these standards, you may be better off with emotional support animal certification.

Step 2: Instilling Proper Training

To become a therapy dog, you’ll also need to equip them with the proper resources and training to become extremely well-behaved and obedient to human command. 

Depending on the therapy dog program you choose, your therapy dog training requirements may vary. For example, some require the dog to receive a Canine Good Citizen award, a program designed to create well-mannered dogs through bonding, obedience, and socialization. 

In this program, the dog must pass a non-competitive 10-step test that includes:

  • Sitting politely when being pet
  • Accepting an approaching, friendly stranger
  • Good overall grooming
  • Walking loosely on a lead
  • Walking through a crowd calmly
  • Sitting, staying, and laying down on command
  • Coming when called
  • Positive reaction to other dogs
  • Positive reaction to distractions
  • Seamless supervised separation between animal and handler

Others may make the dog’s handler subscribe to the AKC Responsible Dog Owners Pledge, which claims responsibility for keeping the dog in good health, providing regular exercise and training opportunities, and offering an overall high quality of life. 

You will need to research the certifying organization’s training requirements to understand what will be expected.

Step 3: Pass All Necessary Testing

Regardless of the required training, there is typically a testing requirement before your dog can become a therapy dog. If you must pass the Canine Good Citizen test, that may count toward this. However, it will vary based on your therapy dog program.

Most of the time, there will be a supervised testing portion that will check for things like demeanor, manners, obedience to command, and your skills as a handler.

Then, there are often trial therapy visits to see if the dog has the right demeanor in a real-life situation. These may involve trips to the hospital or other medical facilities to interact with patients. If these visits go well, your dog will be able to continue on to the next step.

Step 4: Receive Therapy Dog Certification

Once all the training is completed and the tests are passed, your dog will finally become a  therapy dog. If you choose to purchase paperwork, you may receive a physical or digital copy of your certification documentation, though this is not a requirement.

What Is More Suitable For You – Therapy Dogs or Service Dogs?

While it’s easy to get the two confused, therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs. While some service dogs may also act as therapy dogs, they are not working in the same role. 

Service dogs offer comfort to specific individuals they are assigned to. They may perform certain tasks or prevent medical emergencies to help their handler.

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, provide comfort to the general public. They can offer affection, stress relief, and comfort to those who may need it.

A therapy dog does not have the same legal protections that a service dog will, so it’s important to understand these differences. You may not take a therapy dog into a restaurant or grocery store, for example. However, you can always take a service dog here.

If you are in need of service yourself, you may decide to look into service dogs. If, however, your goal is to help others by providing a level of comfort and support through a dog, then a therapy certification is probably the right fit. 

How Do You Know If Your Dog Can Be a Therapy Dog?

A therapy dog is someone’s pet that has been specially trained to offer support, comfort, stress relief, and emotional support to those in need. These dogs may be asked to lie on hospital beds, sit still for long petting sessions, or do small tricks for the pleasure of the individuals in need.

Therapy dogs are often used for those who struggle with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. They are also helpful at hospitals, retirement homes, hospice facilities, nursing homes, schools, libraries, and rehabilitative clinics. 

Technically, any breed of dog can qualify. However, you must consider that some facilities may have stricter rules with size or breed restrictions. 

The most important aspect of a therapy dog is their personality. It is more than just being affectionate – it’s about staying calm in even unreliable situations and providing that sense of peace and comfort. They also need to be okay with odd circumstances, such as sitting down next to a large IV pole or riding on elevators with their handler.

Trying to determine if your dog is the right candidate for a therapy certification? There are a few aspects that make for a great therapy dog:

  • Socialization - How friendly and socialized is your dog? Have they spent a lot of time around strangers and other dogs? Do they get anxious in a crowd? Are they well mannered around new people?
  • Affection - Does your dog crave affection and like to provide it just as much? Do they sit politely during pets? How do they feel about being handled by strangers, kids?
  • Obedience - How well does the animal respond to commands? Does the dog react quickly and correctly, or is there resistance?

Aspects such as obedience, affection, and socialization can be subjective. To get a better idea of whether your dog would be a good fit, consider the following:

  1. Is your dog a people magnet wherever they go? Good!
  2. Does your dog ignore most other dogs? Good!
  3. Is your dog comfortable around large equipment and tools? Good!
  4. Does your dog love children and treat them gently? Good!
  5. Does your dog know sit, stay, down, and come? Good!
  6. Does your dog love to interact with humans for hours on end? Good!

If you can confidently answer the above questions with a resounding “yes,” then you’re in a good position for getting your dog certified for therapy.

Benefits of Therapy Dogs

Beyond the general uplift in mood, they can also provide a number of benefits to their handler. Some of the most noticeable benefits include:

  • Boosting self-esteem through affection
  • Brings attention to the present, boosts mindfulness through interaction
  • Reduces blood pressure
  • Reduces heart rate
  • Reduces anxiety and lessens the effects of depression
  • Increases the body’s production of endorphins
  • Provide physical stimulation, assisting with pain management
  • Stimulate the brain
  • Improve problem-solving skills
  • Improve memory
  • Reduce fatigue

Anyone who’s been around a loving dog can tell you — there are noticeable differences between time spent with one and without one. With just a lick or a wag of the tail, a therapy dog can make a big difference in many people’s lives.

Do You Need a Letter For a Therapy Dog?

While there is no letter needed especially for therapy dogs, many therapy dog owners will also choose to get their canine certified as an emotional support animal or service dog. These letters are provided by a doctor or licensed mental health professional and recognize your animal's status as an emotional support animal. 

This may look good to the therapy dog program as they consider your application. The more proof you can provide that your dog is a reliable, affectionate, and obedient animal, the higher your chances of getting therapy certified.

Start The ESA Registration Process

If you want to learn more about getting your dog ESA registered to purchase therapy dog products, contact the therapy animal experts at ESA Registration at your earliest convenience.