Therapy Dog

Becoming a Therapy Dog Team

Therapy DogSeveral people have asked me how my dog, a rescue named Jones, and I became a therapy dog team. To be honest, I had put off this longtime dream of mine because I was under the impression that the process was very difficult. Happily, I was wrong. But while becoming a therapy dog team isn’t hard, there are specific steps you need to take, and many people aren’t sure where to start. This is what we did to achieve this rewarding goal. These steps are specific to registering with Pet Partners, the largest registerer of therapy animals.

(Note: You may notice I use the words “dog” and “animal” interchangeably. That’s because just about any animal can be a service animal. Cats, horses, rabbits, birds, and many more.) 
 

Before we go any further, we should clear up some misconceptions about what exactly a Therapy Dog is. It might be easier to start with what a therapy dog is not:

A therapy dog is not a service dog. A service dog is an assistance animal that has been trained to help an individual with their disabilities, like navigating the world with a visual impairment (e.g. a guide dog), performing tasks like retrieving and delivering an object, and sensing seizures to name a few. These dogs are not considered companion dogs or pets, but as working dogs. Under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) a service dog is generally allowed to go anywhere that the public is allowed to go, such as stores, restaurants, and places of work. 
 
A therapy dog is also not an emotional support animal or comfort dog. An emotional support animal is a companion animal that provides therapeutic support to an individual, usually alleviating a mental or psychiatric disability. The dog needs no special training, other than being reasonably well behaved. There are only two special accommodations allowed to an emotional support animal according to the ADA: An individual with an emotional support animal is allowed to keep the animal in housing (even a pet-free residences) without fees or penalties. Also, an emotional support animal is allowed on airplanes, also without fees or penalties. However, emotional support animals are not allowed in businesses, restaurants, etc according to the ADA. Posing an emotional support animal as a service dog is unlawful, as well as morally questionable. 
 

What a therapy dog is:

A therapy dog is a companion dog that has been trained to promote positive human-animal interactions, providing comfort and affection in hospitals, retirement homes, schools, shelters, and many other establishments. A therapy dog typically lives with it’s handler, and the team volunteers their time visiting with people to help them physically, emotionally and psychologically. A therapy dog is not covered by the ADA, and posing him or her as a service dog is unlawful. 
 

Now that we know what a therapy dog is, let’s move on to the steps to become a volunteering team! 

Be Prepared. Just by reading this article you are arming yourself with the information you will need to become a successful therapy dog team.
It’s important to recognize if your dog is a good fit for therapy work. Does your dog seek out and enjoy attention such as excited petting and hugs? Can she obey commands such as sit, stay and come without a treat? Does she keep her cool in crowded and loud environments? If so, you have an potential therapy dog on your hands. Look over the evaluation criteria here to see what exactly you will be tested on and identify any areas you need to work on with your dog. (Other animals have other criteria, you can find those evaluation overviews here.) It is also important to know that your dog will need to be bathed no more than 48 hours before a therapy visit, so you must be willing to groom or have your dog groomed however often you plan to visit.
 
Train. You know what the evaluation will be like, so it’s a good idea to enroll in a training class. Even the most well-behaved dog will benefit from getting in the “therapy dog mindset”. Training together strengthens your bond, and teaches your dog to listen to you in all circumstances. I especially found that training in a park will prepare you for anything (SQUIRREL!!)
CGC: This is an optional step, but one I would recommend. The CGC or Canine Good Citizen Program teaches good manners in dogs and responsible dog ownership for their handlers. The CGC test is very similar to the therapy dog test, so it’s a great way to prepare for the Pet Partners test. You can find an evaluator in your area at the AKC CGC site. Most evaluators also offer training, so that’s a good place to find an excellent trainer. Pet Partners itself does not offer dog training, only evaluations and registrations.
 
Test. With superb training under your belt, it’s time to get down to business. Here’s the knitty gritty details about the registration process:
1. The required Handler Workshop can be taken online, but they recommend you take it in person. Go to this link, click on your state, and go to calendar view. This will show you upcoming Handler Courses. You can also find licensed instructors in your area by searching their directory. Your Handler Course will need to be completed before you can take the Team Evaluation with your dog.
2. You will need an Animal Health Screening Form to be completed by your veterinarian before you do the team evaluation with your dog. Written proof of rabies vaccination is also required. The form can be found on page 9 of the Pet Partners Registration Packet, and page 8 is a letter for your veterinarian, explaining what the form is asking of them. 
3. You can find Team Evaluations in your area by going to the same link you went to for the handler evaluation, or searching the Pet Partners directory. You will need to present the following at your Team Evaluation:
– Your Hander’s Course Certificate of Completion
– Your dog’s rabies certificate
– Your Animal Health Screening Form from your vet
The evaluation itself should be no surprise, since you have been training and possibly taken the CGC test. The most important thing to remember is to remain calm, as your dog will pick up on your energy.
If you don’t pass your first time (many do not), don’t stress. This is supposed to be fun for you and your dog. A “not ready” test can establish what to work on for your next try. 
4. When you do pass the test- Great job! You and your dog have jumped through all the hoops (get it?!) and all you need to do is submit your Registration Packet, including a photo of you and your dog, and pony up the registration fee. Word is that they process registrations that are submitted via email faster than those sent via snail mail. Pet Partners will send you an acceptance letter and badge once your registration is complete. Once you get the acceptance letter, you can start visiting.
 
Visit. The minutia of the goal is over and you are finally able to share your dog with those who would love to see her. There are a few ways to go about finding a place to visit with your newly minted therapy dog. You can join a volunteer group that already is set up with specific hospitals, retirement homes, and schools. This site has a list of groups, search by your state, reach out and do some research. Some groups have minimum volunteering hours, and other restrictions, so make sure the group you join suits your schedule. You can also approach a facility, and see if they have a program already in place. If they do, they will be very impressed that you are already a registered therapy animal team, as some people approach the facilities not knowing the process required. 
 
I am so glad I did not wait until I was retired, or until life slowed down to achieve this goal. And the journey continues as Jones and I become regular volunteers.
jones therapy dog

If this goof ball can do it, so can you!

Please let me know if you have any questions about the process and I’ll be happy to help if I can.
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DISCLOSURE: In order for me to support my blogging activities, I occasionally may receive monetary compensation or other types of remuneration for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this blog. However, I only recommend products or services I have personally used myself and trust.