What makes a good therapy dog?

A therapy dog should be friendly, patient, confident, gentle, and at ease in most environments.

Therapy dogs must truly enjoy human contact, actively seek out connections with people other than those closest to them and be comfortable being petted and handled (sometimes clumsily) by unfamiliar people. 

It’s also important for therapy dogs to be able to behave calmly in a variety of settings and around every type of distraction imaginable. Emotional maturity is key to this work, as it allows therapy dogs to be able to handle frustration, unexpected situations, and to be calm enough to put others at ease and be approachable.

If someone is deciding if their dog is ready to be a therapy dog, they should honestly assess if their dog truly enjoys meeting new people and is at ease when being handled by them. Ask yourself: How comfortable is your dog in new environments, around noises, groups of people (including kids)? Does your dog have a good basic training foundation using positive reinforcement? Can your dog be excited about meeting new people but also remain calm enough to put those people at ease?

If a dog gets so excited meeting new people that they are likely to jump up, bark, or engage in pawing or play mouthing for attention, then they will need some additional training before they’re ready. Some young dogs have exactly the right temperament for therapy work and the love of people but may just need a little more time to mature or a little more training practice around distractions.

It’s important to not force a dog into a role that they don’t truly enjoy, as engaging in therapy work is a choice that needs to be made by BOTH handler and the dog.

Calm behaviors can be taught just like any other behavior. You can always train behaviors, but you can’t train the desire to interact. That’s up to the pup!

Dogs are individuals, each with their own unique gifts, and some will be comfortable with therapy work and some won’t. If dogs don’t have choices in this work, they can be put into situations where they feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed, which can lead to burn out or worse. We must keep in mind the quality of the experience of those we’re visiting (be it at a hospital, park, etc.), as well as that of our dog.

Paws &Think can help to offer guidance as to whether a dog is ready to start their therapy dog journey, or what steps should be taken to become more prepared.

How to Volunteer with Therapy Dog Programs

Paws & Think offers Therapy Skills training classes and evaluations for prospective therapy teams. If you are interested in volunteering your time along with your dog, please visit our Therapy Dog Team page for more information. If you don’t have a dog or your dog is not a good fit to be a therapy dog, you can still help out! Paws & Think needs volunteers to help with our training classes and evaluations.

If you would like to partner with Paws & Think to bring our pet therapy program to your venue, please email us at info@pawsandthink.org.