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From Dog Owner to Animal-Assisted Therapist: Secrets to Working With Therapy Dogs

Published on: September 27, 2022

person sitting in a wheelchair while shaking a dog's paw

Few clichés hold more truth than the idea of a dog as man's best friend. Canine companions are not only beloved family members; increasingly, they form an important part of the puzzle for addressing mental and emotional health.

Through targeted training and a lot of passion, teams of humans and dogs can deliver healing, even when patients or clients are resistant to other therapeutic techniques. Keep reading to learn how animals promote healing for humans — and how you can get involved:

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What Is Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy is a comprehensive term that encompasses several animal-related practices. In general, however, it involves the guided interaction between a patient (or client), handler and trained animal.

How Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Work?

While pet therapy sometimes involves a general approach, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a goal-directed process. This approach integrates animals into trusted modalities with the intention of reducing stress and increasing openness to therapy.

No single mode of treatment applies universally to animal-assisted therapy. A lot depends on the types of animals used and the expertise of the handler.

Research suggests that AAT can be a complementary intervention for cognitive behavioral therapy, especially when used to manage stress. AAT can also be an excellent adjunct to dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) modalities that incorporate mindfulness.

Who Can Benefit From Animal-assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy is primarily meant to address concerns related to mental, emotional and cognitive health. That being said, it can also be valuable for patients with mobility impairments — particularly if emotional problems accompany physical disorders.

Examples of conditions that respond well to animal-assisted therapy include:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Depression

Often, demographic considerations are just as important as the diagnosis in determining the potential efficacy of AAT.

For example, children often respond well to AAT. Likewise, AAT is an increasingly popular option for seniors struggling with mental health concerns. A growing body of research indicates it may also be a favorable option for improving symptoms and general quality of life for patients with dementia.

Criteria for a Therapy Dog and Handler

It's only natural to think of your own dog as perfect, but a dog that's well-suited to your home and lifestyle may still not be a good fit for AAT. This demanding pursuit calls for a specific temperament: calm and friendly. Certain breeds tend to be prominent in this niche, but that doesn't mean that AAT is limited to any one type of dog.

Above all else, therapy dogs must enjoy interacting with a variety of different people. They must remain cheerful yet calm in every environment — regardless of environmental stimuli or the patient's demeanor. Adaptability is essential; therapy dogs must take it all in stride, whether they encounter new people or surprising smells, sounds and sights.

Other considerations for the dog include general health and wellness. This means keeping up to date on veterinary visits and grooming. Basic obedience training is also essential, as we'll touch on below.

Equally important? The temperament and skills of the handler. As with the therapy dog, the human half of this pair must be gentle, empathetic and calm. They should be effective communicators, regardless of whether they're interacting with people or dogs.

How to Certify a Therapy Dog

Even the friendliest dogs must undergo extensive training before being prepared to serve in a therapeutic capacity. The process may look a bit different depending on the scope of the dog's service but will typically involve these key steps:


First, dogs must ace formal obedience training before moving on to targeted therapeutic techniques. Without solid obedience, handlers cannot be confident that therapy dogs will stay calm and composed in novel settings or situations. Key skills include:

  • Sitting politely and on cue, even while being petted by strangers.
  • Remaining in control on a leash — this includes navigating pedestrian traffic.
  • Coming promptly when called by a trusted handler.

While interactions between the handler, the dog and the patient are most important, handlers should also feel confident that therapy dogs will remain mild-mannered if left in the care of another trusted individual.

Enroll in Therapy Classes

Once would-be therapy dogs have mastered the basics of obedience, it's time to move on to more targeted training. This is important for humans and dogs alike. Handlers must possess a thorough understanding of animal behavior, especially as it relates to human-animal interactions. Meanwhile, dogs must learn therapy-oriented skills, such as:

  • Watch me. Therapy dogs should be able to ignore distractions that might tempt other canines. The "watch me" cue verifies that handlers can hold their dogs' attention in any location.
  • Leave it. Food, toys and other items of interest must be resisted unless handlers tell their dogs otherwise. When dogs consistently follow the "leave it" command, handlers can feel confident that they'll only take or consume items of interest if instructed.
  • Four on the floor. Jumpy dogs are not a good fit for therapeutic settings; even if well-intentioned, they can scare emotionally vulnerable patients. The concept of "four on the floor" refers to the dog's ability to keep all paws on the floor even when excited.

While these obedience skills are valuable for any dog, they're imperative in AAT. Therapy classes encourage a higher degree of adherence to these cues and commands, above and beyond what might be expected of a 'typical' pet.


Registration provides confidence for handlers and patients alike. It confirms that therapy dogs can be trusted to remain calm and friendly, no matter the setting. It also verifies the expertise of the dog's handler, which is arguably just as important.

Multiple organizations provide therapy dog certification. Many practitioners look to the American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test for obedience. This provides a great start, but additional testing may be needed to verify a dog’s competence as therapy animals.

Difference Between Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs

While therapy and service dogs share many similarities, there are several significant differences are worth noting. The most crucial distinction? Where these animals live and work. Service dogs typically live with people diagnosed with various physical, mental or emotional disorders. These dogs play an integral role in the daily lives of their companions,

Therapy dogs also differ considerably from emotional support animals. As with service dogs, emotional support pets live with their human companions. As their name indicates, they provide an emotional outlet for people with a variety of disorders. Pets designated as emotional support animals may be able to reside in or visit locations that otherwise don't allow dogs.

How to Become an Animal-Assisted Therapist

If you're eager to make a positive difference for humans and canines alike, you could be the perfect candidate for a fulfilling career in pet therapy. First, you'll need targeted training from a program with a strong reputation. That's precisely what you'll find at Husson University, where we prepare various students to make their mark in the promising field of animal-assisted therapy.

Our nine-credit undergraduate certificate program delves into the remarkable human-animal bond and opportunities for using that bond as a tool for healing. We use a variety of case studies to reveal how dogs can amplify therapeutic benefits in nearly any environment imaginable. You should be prepared to integrate dogs into many treatment modalities by completing this program.

Ready to get started? Contact us today to learn more about our Certificate in Animal-Assisted Therapy — or to discover the many other certificates and degree programs we offer at Husson.

Get Your Animal-Assisted Therapy Certificate



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