Is your dog therapy dog material?

Doggie Dialogues
By Doris Dressler, CPDT-KA 

Whenever Willie and Wonka visit their great-grandmother in the assisted living home, they receive lots of attention from the residents who make every effort to come out and see them. Great-grandma feels very special that she has a connection to the dogs and can show them off to the other residents. The boys seem to sense that gentleness is needed in this atmosphere and they allow all to pet them, even seeking out the ones who stay around the periphery of the circle.
- Alice Hart, owner of Willie and Wonka
  Doris Dressler

It will come as no surprise to pet owners that scientific studies confirm petting your dog or cat can improve your mood and make you feel less anxious and stressed.

Spending time with a dog or cat—even just watching fish swim—can result in your body going through physical changes. explains, “the level of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, is lowered. And the production of serotonin, a chemical associated with well-being, is increased.”

No wonder therapeutic visitation dogs (or therapy dogs, for short) are welcomed into assisted living, nursing homes, hospitals and schools all across the United States.

What is a therapy dog?
According to, a therapy dog is “a dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas and to people with learning difficulties.”

  Doggie Dialogues
  Noble, a service-puppy-in-training prepares for a therapy visit at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Photo by Kathy Walker

Therapy dogs are not service or guide dogs and are, therefore, not covered by the American with Disabilities Act, which defines public access guidelines for working dogs.
What does it take?  
The skills therapy dog organizations look for are similar. Intermountain Therapy Animals evaluates therapy dog candidates to make sure they are:

  • People-oriented, sociable and willing to engage with others
  • Comfortable with exuberant and clumsy petting
  • Tolerant of being petted and crowded by several people at once
  • Accepting of restraining hugs
  • Comfortable around medical equipment
  • Not reactive to loud yelling or being bumped from behind
  • Able to cope with stressful situations
  • Responsive and controllable at all times
  • Good around other animals

Most organizations also require some basic obedience skills and/or the Canine Good Citizenship (CGC) certification. Skills required to pass the CGC examination include:

  • Accepting a friendly stranger (no jumping up)
  • Sitting politely for petting
  • Neat appearance and comfortable with grooming
  • Can walk politely through a crowd
  • Can sit, down and stay on command
  • Comes when called
  • Behaves politely around other dogs
  • Confident when faced with distractions
  • Can be left with someone other than the owner if the need arises
Doggie Dialogues Therapy dog Abby         Doggie Dialogues Therapy dog Croix
Canine Abby and human partner Don Miller prepare to read with children at the Pickens County Library in Jasper. Photo by Kat Alikhan         Croix, a Canine Assistants’ therapy and spokes dog, provides comfort to a young girl at a local hospital. Photo by Sue Harrison

How do I get started?
Therapy teams can operate independently or as part of a larger organization. Several therapy teams in Big Canoe got started simply by approaching local assisted living or nursing homes and asking if the facility was interested in canine visitors; each facility has its own requirements for therapy dogs and the teams establish their own routines and schedules.

Other therapy teams prefer to become affiliated with an established organization, which can provide training and education, access to different service opportunities, assistance from the organization to initiate new programs, help with problem resolution and, most importantly, liability insurance.

Doggie Dialogues Therapy dog Ginger
Ginger, a 3-year-old poodle, relaxes with a resident at a local nursing home. Photo by Karen Sumlin

Several of the major therapy organizations are listed below. Access their website for more information about how to become part of a therapy dog team.

  • Intermountain Therapy Animals offers therapy dog programs as well as the READing Paws program that Bent Tree resident Don Miller and Abby participate in. (
  • Happy Tails Pet Therapy is one of the largest therapy organizations in Atlanta, with a membership of more than 350 volunteers who visit 125-plus local facilities. (
  • Pet Partners, formally known as the Delta Society, is one of the largest therapy organizations in the country. (
  • Therapy Dogs International is one of the oldest therapy dog organizations in the country. (

Doris Dressler is a CPDT-KA (certified professional dog trainer, knowledge assessed) with over 16 years’ experience training service dogs and family pet dogs. She also volunteers her time training rescued dogs at Big Canoe Animal Rescue.


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