If you have a dog who’s mellow and loves being around people, and the idea of helping your pet bring joy to others appeals to you, you might just have a therapy animal in the making.
Accompanied by their owners, therapeutic visitation animals – which are most commonly dogs, but can also be cats, rabbits, pot-bellied pigs, horses, etc. – regularly visit people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and other facilities, providing furry comfort and compassion.
“Four-footed therapists give something special to enhance the health and well-being of others,” says the website of Therapy Dogs International (TDI), a nonprofit organization that regulates, tests and registers therapy dogs and their handlers. “It has been clinically proven that through petting, touching and talking with animals, patients’ blood pressure is lowered, stress is relieved and depression is eased.”
What It Takes to Be a Therapy Dog
Therapy animals are “born, not made,” according to TDI. They must have an outstanding temperament, and be outgoing and friendly to people of all ages. They must also behave well with other animals.
In general, therapy dogs must also be at least one year old; current on all vaccines required by local laws; and be clean and well groomed when visiting people.
Along with the ability to obey basic commands like “Sit,” “Stay,” “Come” and “Leave it,” dogs are tested by therapy dog certification organizations to ensure they can do the following, according to TDI (most of these requirements apply to other species of potential therapy animals as well):
- Listen to their handlers
- Allow strangers to touch them all over
- Not jump on people when interacting
- Not mind strange noises and smells
- Be calm for petting
- Not be afraid of people walking unsteadily
Getting Your Dog Certified as a Therapy Animal
Think your dog has the right stuff to be a therapy animal? To get an idea of the type of testing involved, this TDI brochure describes each of the 13 tests a dog must pass in order to be certified.
Some therapy animal organizations, including Pet Partners, offer workshops so you and your dog can practice the required skills before being tested for certification.
The AKC website has a list of therapy animal organizations all across the U.S. from which your dog can receive certification. Contact the one nearest you for further information.
The Difference Between Therapy and Service Animals
Although the two are often confused, therapy animals are not the same as service animals, which “have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability,” according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“An example of a service dog is a dog who guides an owner who is blind or assists someone who has a physical disability,” the American Kennel Club (AKC) explains. “Service dogs stay with their person and have special access privileges in public places such as planes, restaurants, etc.”
Therapy dogs, on the other hand, are are privately owned. Unlike service animals and their handlers, in most U.S. states, therapy animals and their owners don’t have protections under federal law (ADA, the Fair Housing Act, etc.), reports the National Service Animal Registry.
You can find out more about therapy animals and getting your dog certified from these organizations:
This story was originally published on Care2.com.