What Are Therapy Dogs?

By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz June 08, 2020

The bond between humans and dogs is incredibly powerful. For many, a dog’s presence can be soothing, bring joy, and provide companionship free of judgement. Programs exist all over the world that use dogs to provide healing and to bring comfort to people in many different circumstances.

What Are Therapy Dogs?

Therapy dogs are pets that travel with their handler to a variety of settings to provide services through their presence. These dogs and their volunteer handlers work as a team to assist vulnerable members of society including students, victims of traumatic events, and patients in long-term care. By allowing petting, snuggling, and positive interactions, these dogs spread joy, warmth, and emotional support. Dogs have a natural ability to read our emotions and will respond to stress or sadness through gentle nuzzles and cuddles. Studies have shown that interacting with therapy dogs results in reduced physiological signs of stress such as lowered blood pressure, heart rate, and amount of stress hormones (Barker et al., 2010).

The Difference Between A Service Dog And A Therapy Dog

Service dogs are dogs trained to complete specific tasks for their handler that are directly related to their disability. These dogs are granted special access to public spaces to increase the accessibility of public services to their handler. Service dogs should never be pet or interacted with by the public in order to avoid distracting them from performing their jobs. Therapy dogs, on the other hand, perform their service through their presence alone. Petting and cuddling of therapy dogs are often encouraged, and are a big part of how they do their job. Another important distinction between service and therapy dogs is that therapy dogs are considered pets.  Therefore, they are not protected by federal laws or the Americans with Disabilities Act. Instead, therapy dogs are granted access to public spaces on a case-by-case basis. They must be approved and invited in by the hosting facility (e.g. school, hospital, etc.). Some state and local laws allow therapy dogs to ride on public transport in order to reach their therapy appointments. Additionally, it is recommended that therapy dogs do not wear vests to avoid confusion with service dogs. Vests may also limit people’s ability to pet the dog. Instead, many therapy dogs will wear bandanas, ID tags, or flat collars to indicate that they are a certified therapy animal.

What Are The Requirements To Be A Therapy Dog?

There are a number of organizations that set requirements for therapy dogs, provide testing and certification services, and create links between volunteers and public facilities. Some of these requirements include passing obedience and behavioral tests and receiving health checks from a certified veterinarian. Moreover, many of these programs require that the dog and handler pass as a team. In addition to the dog being a good candidate for providing therapy, the handler must be competent in managing the interactions between the dog and the patient. The handler is responsible for ensuring a safe experience for both the dog and the human, and they must know when and how to intervene when a situation gets to be too much for either party. Dogs that make good candidates for therapy are those that have a strong desire to interact with people, get along well with other dogs, and are patient with children.

Where Do Therapy Dogs Work?

There are many places that have established therapy dog programs. This list highlights some common locations in which therapy dogs and their handlers may volunteer. The therapeutic benefits of therapy dogs continue to become more apparent. Thus, the demand for therapy dog services continues to become more widespread.

  • Schools and colleges

Therapy dogs in schools may help alleviate frustrations associated with learning new topics, they may help students learn to read through serving as a non-judgmental audience, and they may be used in demonstrations to teach children how to safely approach and interact with dogs. One study found that interacting with therapy dogs helped improve the focus, positivity, and cooperation of children with learning disabilities (Limond et al., 1997). On college campuses, therapy dogs may be used during test taking periods to relieve test taking anxiety, or they may serve during college-wide exam weeks to provide relief from long study periods.

  • Assisted living and nursing homes

Therapy dogs may visit assisted living or nursing homes to calm and soothe agitated patients (Churchill et al., 1999), lift the spirits of sad and lonely people, provide physical touch and affection, provide unconditional love and acceptance, and may even be used in physical therapy programs to encourage movement through active petting movements.

  • Shelters

Shelters that provide housing for abuse survivors may bring in therapy dogs to provide comfort, accompany people in counseling programs, and offer a distraction from their current situation.

  • Children’s hospitals

Hospitals can be scary places for children and therapy dogs may help make their stay feel more like home, helping them cope with the hospital setting (Tsai et al., 2010). Hospitals will likely have strict policies for therapy dogs and their handlers. The dogs must be especially good with children. Their handlers may need to pass a background check, attend hospital specific orientation programs and trainings, and pass health screenings before being permitted to volunteer.

  • General hospitals

Patients, staff, and families in the waiting room may all benefit from therapy dog visits. A study found that stress reduction in healthcare professionals may occur after as little as five minutes of interaction with a therapy dog (Barker et al., 2005). Dogs may help keep patients calm while waiting for surgery or an uncomfortable medical procedure. They may also provide companionship to those without visitors. Some veterans’ hospitals have programs that bring in therapy dogs whose handlers are veterans themselves.

  • Hospice

Therapy dogs can positively impact patients in hospice care by providing love, comfort, and companionship, and gives patients something to look forward to. They can also provide comfort to patients and their families through the death process. Some therapy dogs and their handlers may build up such strong relationships with patients and their loved ones that they may be asked to provide a final visit at the funeral home.

  • Disaster relief

As part of the grieving and healing process following natural disasters and traumatic events, therapy dogs may be brought in to serve the community. Large disaster events often bring in therapy dogs from all across the country.

  • At home

Volunteers may make visits to individuals at home to deliver companionship, provide a routine and sense of normalcy to home bound people, to give caretakers a momentary break, and to provide healing through emotional wellness.

  • Airports

Therapy dogs are increasingly becoming present at airports to help reduce the many stressors that accompany flying.

How Are Therapy Dogs Trained And Tested?

Dogs in volunteer therapy programs must be well socialized, well trained, and be comfortable with a wide variety of people and environments. Typically, organizations will provide a framework for volunteering and what standards for training are required. Therapy Dogs International (TDI, n.d.) very clearly outlines the testing that their dogs need to pass to receive therapy dog certification. This includes examining the dogs reaction to being handled by a stranger, their response to loud, startling noises (such as something being dropped or a vacuum cleaner starting up), how they handle novel experiences, and how well they can follow commands in a busy environment. Commands that therapy dogs must excel at include sit, stay, down, and leave it. They must also demonstrate good recall skills. 

How Do I Get A Therapy Dog?

Any dog that meets the behavioral and health standards can become a therapy dog, including your own dog. Most therapy dogs are certified through a program that outlines what standards must be met and provide evaluations to hold handlers and dogs accountable to their standards. Any dog that has bitten in the past should not be considered for service as a therapy dog. Typically, programs require that the dog be at least a year old and in good health. They must be up to date on their vaccinations, be potty trained, pass an annual check-up from their vet, and must be heartworm negative. Handlers should be adults (or have a signed waiver from an adult), conduct themselves appropriately and professionally, and must be mature enough to be around potentially vulnerable members of their community.

If you work at a facility that you think would benefit from therapy dogs, look for a trusted therapy dog organization near you. Organizations can help ensure that handlers and dogs are sufficiently trained to interact safely with your students, patients, or staff. Certification organizations may also provide services such as background checks on handlers or provide liability or accident insurance. 

Can Any Dog Breed Be A Therapy Dog?

Yes! Dogs of all breeds, purebred or mixed, can make excellent therapy dogs. The most important characteristics in a therapy dog are their behavior and personality traits. Dogs that enjoy being around people and have a good grasp of basic commands can excel at therapy volunteering. Dogs of all sizes are welcome to provide therapy. Small dogs may be placed on a patient’s lap or in bed with the patient. While medium dogs may be placed on a chair to better reach their patient. Large dogs may provide their therapy while standing or sitting near the patient. Therapy animals are not limited to dogs either. Many certification programs allow horses, cats, small fury pets, birds, and even reptiles to be certified to provide comfort to patients. Just as with dogs, patients are given the option on how they would like to interact with the animal.


Therapy dogs can have a powerful impact on the communities that they serve. The human-animal bond can lead to measurable positive impacts on the health and well being of people. Therapy dog programs are a great way for individual pet owners to get involved with their community while improving their dog’s training and social skills.

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Works Cited

Barker, S. B., Knisely, J. S., McCain, N. L., & Best, A. M. (2005). Measuring stress and immune response in healthcare professionals following interaction with a therapy dog: A pilot study. Psychological reports96(3), 713-729.

Barker, S. B., Knisely, J. S., McCain, N. L., Schubert, C. M., & Pandurangi, A. K. (2010). Exploratory study of stress-buffering response patterns from interaction with a therapy dog. Anthrozoös23(1), 79-91.

Churchill, M., Safaoui, J., McCabe, B. W., & Baun, M. M. (1999). Using a therapy dog to alleviate the agitation and desocialization of people with Alzheimer's disease. Journal of psychosocial nursing and mental health services37(4), 16-22.

Limond, J. A., Bradshaw, J. W., & Cormack, M. K. (1997). Behavior of children with learning disabilities interacting with a therapy dog. Anthrozoös10(2-3), 84-89.

Therapy Dogs International (TDI) testing requirements [Brochure]. (n.d.) Flanders, NJ

Tsai, C. C., Friedmann, E., & Thomas, S. A. (2010). The effect of animal-assisted therapy on stress responses in hospitalized children. Anthrozoös23(3), 245-258.