What is a Therapy Dog? What You Need to Know

Animals are a huge part of our lives in many ways, and some animals are trained to help us through difficult times. Dogs are especially beneficial to our mental health and well-being. You’ve likely heard of service dogs or emotional support animals, but have you heard of a therapy dog? 

What is a Therapy Dog?

A therapy dog is a dog trained to provide comfort and affection to people who need healing, stress relief, or situations such as nursing homes, hospitals, retirement homes, schools, or disaster areas. They are also commonly used to visit children and people with learning disabilities, as animal-assisted healing is a fantastic stress reliever. 

Though therapy dogs are not as intensely trained as service animals, there are some general characteristics that these dogs must have

  • Must have a calm, friendly, and patient temperament
  • Must be comfortable around multiple people and other animals
  • Must be leash and/or harness trained, and quick to respond to their commands
  • Although Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers are most common, they can breed as long as they have the training and temperament. 

Types of Therapy Animals 

Even though they aren’t service animals, there are still different services and emotional support a therapy animal can provide. There are three main “categories” of dog. 

1 – Facility Therapy Dog 

Some hospitals and retirement homes have a facility therapy dog who comes in regularly to visit people, or they live there and are cared for by the staff. They are most often found in assisted living homes, and animal-assisted therapy is excellent for those dealing with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and mental illnesses in general.

2 – Therapeutic Visitation 

These dogs are someone’s pet who has been trained to handle groups of people and typically visits hospitals, schools, or disaster areas to provide comfort to those living away from home or dealing with a lot of stress. Universities often bring in therapeutic visitation dogs for finals week to help students relax. 

3 – Animal Assisted Therapy 

Dogs make great companions in physical and occupational therapy. Many therapists have a dog for animal-assisted physical therapy, as animals can encourage patients in their healing process. 

These dogs are meant more for psychological healing and stress relief as opposed to assisting their owners with daily tasks. Animal-assisted therapy has proven time and again to be beneficial to those in highly stressful situations. 

What a Therapy Dog is Not 

Therapy dogs are not service dogs; they do not have extensive behavioral training or legal rights as service animals. They are also not emotional support animals in the legal sense. 

These dogs are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, although national organizations such as the Alliance of Therapy Dogs can register your animal. Though these animals can provide emotional support, they are not considered ESAs.

How Dogs Can Become Therapy Dogs

If you think your dog could fit the bill for animal-assisted therapy, and you are interested in bringing them into nursing homes, hospitals, etc., there are a few steps to take. 

If your dog meets the personality standards and is over a year old, you may be able to get them registered. They should have basic training and be very obedient. 

Typically, you and your dog must be observed by a certified tester to see how friendly, patient, and responsive your pet is. You will also have to be observed visiting at least three medical facilities with your dog to see how they handle the situations. 

If your dog can pass these tests, you are well on your way to having a certified therapy dog! If you find the right registration process to provide you guidelines and support, you’ll be able to take your dog to various places to bring some happiness knowing that you can make a difference.


Will your dog make a great therapy dog? If you want to get started or learn more about the process, contact our ESA Registration experts. Your dog can spread joy to others, just like they do for you.