Aaron was a 5-year-old who had been placed in foster care due to family difficulties. His mother and father had histories of substance abuse, and it was decided that Aaron was no longer safe in his home.
A worker at the foster home called and asked me to visit with my therapy dog because Aaron would not talk to the counselor. I took my Welsh Springer Spaniel, Sarge, on the visit. We all sat on the ground outside and Aaron began to pet Sarge. "So, Aaron, how are you doing?" I asked. "Fine," Aaron whispered, but he said nothing more. I didn't push Aaron to interact.
Finally, Aaron asked Sarge, "Did you come from the animal shelter?" I asked Aaron how he knew about shelters. It turns out Aaron made his first visit to the shelter only days before, when his mother went to drop off the family pets—just before dropping off Aaron at Protective Services to be taken into foster care.
As Aaron continued to pet Sarge, he talked directly to the dog about the animal shelter. "It is a nice place," he said. "They feed the animals, but it is sad because they don't have a family to love them." It was clear that Aaron was talking about himself. I blinked back tears, and invited the counselor to join us. Aaron talked to Sarge first, then me, then to the counselor. The therapy dog was like a key that unlocked a door, and once Aaron starting talking, therapy began. – Mary Burch, Ph.D.
You Asked for It
"Isn't there any way AKC can acknowledge the great work our therapy dogs are doing?" This frequent, ongoing question from proud dog owners to the Performance Events department resulted in the launching of the very successful AKC Therapy Dog program in July 2011.
Therapy dogs go with their owners to volunteer in settings such as schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. From working with a child who is learning to read to visiting a senior in assisted living, therapy dogs and their owners work together as a team to improve the lives of other people.
How ThD Works
The AKC Therapy Dog program awards an official AKC title to dogs who have worked to better the lives of the people they have visited.
The AKC Therapy Dog title, the ThD, can be earned by dogs who have been certified by AKC-recognized therapy-dog organizations, and the dogs must have performed 50 or more community visits.
The AKC does not test or certify therapy dogs; the training and certification or registration is done by qualified therapy-dog organizations.
Preparing the Future Therapy Dog
Every responsible breeder wants their puppies to go to a loving home where the puppy will have basic training and a high-quality life. Therapy-dog work is an area in which all puppies can have a wonderful time with their owners as well as make a difference in the lives of others. The minute they pick up their 8-week-old puppy, some excited owners know that they want this puppy to become a therapy dog.
It's never too soon to start preparing a dog for therapy work. We suggest AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy classes followed by Canine Good Citizen training. In AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy, the emphasis is on socialization. Owners learn that puppies need to be exposed to new people, places, and things throughout their lives in order to be stable, reliable dogs.
This is the very first step in preparing the future therapy dog who will eventually need to be steady around IV poles, wheelchairs, and noisy children. In Canine Good Citizen training, the emphasis shifts to learning "good manners" through basic skills such as sit, down, stay, and come. Many therapy-dog organizations require CGC as a prerequisite.
After Canine Good Citizen training, some dog owners will be lucky enough to find a class that is specifically geared at teaching therapy dog skills. Beyond CGC, dogs learn commands such as "leave it," "paws up," and "go say hello." "Leave it" is a necessary skill for dogs who need to be able to walk by pills that were spilled on the floor of a nursing home. "Paws up" is the command used to get a dog to stand with his front feet on a low step stool so he can greet a person in a hospital bed, and "Go say hello" is the cue that indicates to a therapy dog she should go from person to person in the assisted-living facility's recreation room and say hello.
Is My Breed Right for Therapy Work?
The field of animal-assisted therapy has evolved over the last few decades so that therapy dogs are now making a difference in more types of settings than ever before.
In the early 1980s, a majority of therapy dogs and their owners visited nursing homes.
Now, therapy dogs play a role in schools in "reading to the dog" programs, more therapy dogs are permitted in hospitals where infection-control concerns once prevented dogs from visiting, and, with veterans returning from war, there is an increased need for dogs to work with people who have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Certainly, every breed can do therapy work provided the individual dog has had the proper training and socialization, and if the dog has the temperament for enjoying interaction with others.
While a very active dog might do well as a therapy dog for active teenagers in a residential program, this might not be the ideal setting for a quiet, sensitive dog. The quiet, sensitive dog could be a good choice for sitting beside a single child in a school as she improves her reading proficiency by reading to the dog.
How to Get Started
Become certified/registered by an AKC-recognized therapy-dog organization. To find one, visit akc.org/akctherapydog
If you know of a facility (e.g., school, assisted-living facility) in your town that you'd like to visit, you might want to contact them and ask which group certifies or registers their therapy dogs. That would be the group you should contact.
You can also contact your local AKC dog-training club
. The trainers in your local obedience club are likely to know about opportunities for therapy dogs in your city.
Once you identify the group you'd like to be certified or registered with, check their web pages to find out how to get your dog tested and become a member.
Perform a minimum of 50 visits.
Your dog must be registered or listed with the AKC. (The dog must have an AKC number, a PAL number, or an AKC Canine Partners number). All dogs can be registered or listed, including mixed-breeds.
Submit the application for the AKC Therapy Dog title
The AKC Therapy Dog Program has been well received, so well received in fact, that in the four months since the program started, 149 breeds have earned the title. The tag line for the program is "Touching Hearts, Changing Lives" – and that is exactly what our dogs are doing.