Basics 101: Therapy and Service Dogs

There is a lot of confusion regarding Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs and the testing relevant to each.  We look at the differences, give advice on choosing which therapy organization to join and how to prepare your puppy or dog for this specific type of training.

Therapy Dogs are pets that owners have trained and certified to visit others.  There are many types of therapy organizations both local, national and international with specific rules and guidelines.  

When considering which pet therapy group to join pet owners should consider where they would like to visit and investigate which organization has teams there.  Often therapy organizations will take charge of a visit and not allow other organizations to visit unless a member of their group. Fortunately many visits are also run by the volunteer office of a facility which may set their own criteria and specifics regarding which organizations may visit.  Also important is reviewing the guidelines and testing procedures, along with any additional education required and fees.  

The therapy tests for most organizations consist of some basic obedience work including sit, down, 20 ft. stay and come, plus working with other therapy dogs, friendly greetings with strangers, and working with common therapy equipment including wheelchairs, walkers, four-footed canes and crutches. The test is administered by an evaluator.

The best dog for pet therapy work is one that enjoys meeting people and has basic manners so socialization and basic obedience is an important part of building a solid foundation. If the dog shows fear or aggression toward people they are not good candidates and of course if it is not enjoyable for both the human and the canine companion why do it?

Service dogs work specifically for their handler performing a task.  In the United States there is no central registry despite organizations that claim otherwise.  There are specific organizations that train dogs for service and assistance work such as The Seeing Eye, Canine Companions for Independence and many others.  The new work of service dogs also includes Psychological Service dogs which assist with PTSD symptom intervention, Seizure Alert dogs, and others. These should not be confused with Emotional Support dogs that typical have not had formal training and have come under criticism of late as some pet owners have made unsubstantiated claims.  This was addressed by the major airlines with new criteria for in cabin transport including a signed letter from a psychologist annually with their license and a complete vet exam with temperament evaluation.

The most common test used for service dogs is the Public Access test which consists of testing in public for control, temperament and behavior. The test goes beyond basic obedience and can be found here

Service dogs require steady temperament, intelligence and drive. They are often bred for this purpose and are noted for their intense connection performing service for their owners.

There are many individuals who because of their remote locations or unique individual needs may require working one-on-one with a trainer or even training their dogs themselves for therapy or service work.  There are some excellent books on this topic and when reviewing it is essential to check the credentials of the author or trainer. Some therapy dog organizations will certify a team remotely through Skype or video. 

This article was written by Dorice Stancher, MBA, CPDT-KA a therapy dog evaluator for 15 years and professional certified CCPDT trainer.  Ms. Stancher was a featured speaker at the very first NJ Pet Therapy Conference at Morristown Hospital.

Pet therapy teams will often meet prior to starting their visits so that the dogs can relieve themselves but once the visit begins there is often a “two foot” rule keeping the dogs separate and focused on visiting. There are no treats allowed for the dogs while on a visit.
When visiting with children it is essential to control the visit for the safety of the dog. It is a great opportunity to share tips on dog safety and approaching a friendly dog.

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