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I dreamed of getting my dog certified as a therapy dog for years! When I finally did it, I realized I should have done it sooner. The therapy dog test isn’t as hard as I thought it would be, especially after some dedicated training. And the volunteer work has become one of my favorite things to do with my dog.

If you’ve always dreamed of doing therapy dog volunteer work then I encourage you to go for it! In this post, I’ll share my experience training Lucy to become a therapy dog, what it’s like to take the therapy dog test and what happens during our therapy dog volunteer visits.

Was It Worth It To Train My Dog As A Certified Therapy Dog?

Becoming a therapy dog requires a lot of training, but it’s all training that’s very useful in your day to day life with your dog. I always wanted to get my old dog Lola certified because she was so sweet and gentle. However, I put it off until she was too old to enjoy it. So, when I got Lucy certified I felt like I had fulfilled a lifelong dream!

I’ve made so many new friends through our training and volunteer work and Lucy has learned to become a very well behaved dog! Working together on our volunteer visits has also given Lucy and I the chance to bond in a new way and learn to rely on each other. If you ask me, becoming a certified therapy dog is definitely worth it!

jobs that let you work with your dog

Where are Therapy Dogs Allowed To Go?

Are you curious about where you’re allowed to take your therapy dog? Does getting certified grant you access to all kinds of public places? The short answer is, no.

Although it seems like common sense to me now, I know a lot of people are confused about the differences between emotional support dogs VS. therapy dog VS. service dog. There are major differences between these three titles! Let me give you a little summary of each.

Let’s start with the most basic one. An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is a pet that helps people deal with a variety of emotional needs. They might ease your anxiety while traveling or help you feel safe and secure in your home. The benefit of getting an ESA certification is that it can enable you to take your pet on planes and buses or allow you to have your pet in an apartment that doesn’t generally allow pets.

Lucy is actually a certified ESA through CertaPet (you can get a discount on your ESA letter with my link). What’s important to note is that being an ESA does not give you permission to take your dog anywhere you want and it does not require any special training for your dog.

On the other hand, there’s some work involved to train a certified Therapy Dog. There is an obedience/temperament test to pass plus you’re required to stay up to date on vaccinations and blood and stool samples. I’ll go into all of that in more detail below!

The benefit of becoming a certified Therapy Dog is that you and your dog can volunteer together. Some therapy dogs help kids learn to read, some visit nursing homes, and some visit the sites of disasters to comfort survivors. Being a therapy dog enables you to go to public places while you’re “working”, but this certification doesn’t allow you to take your dog anywhere you want. Being a therapy dog doesn’t mean your dog is allowed on planes.

The only certification that allows dogs to go everywhere alongside their owners is a Service Dog. Service dogs are trained to complete specific tasks for their owners. If someone is visually or physically impaired, a service dog can help them get around their home, transportation, work, shops, etc. Becoming a certified service dog is usually something that starts when dogs are just puppies and it’s a huge investment of time and money. Certified Service Animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Which pet industry career is right for you?

What Training Does a Therapy Dog Need?

I was lucky to connect with a local group of dog owners here in Pittsburgh who have an informal club called Therapy Dogs of Pittsburgh (you can see some of us in the photo above!). They sponsored group training lessons once a month. I took Lucy to the monthly group lessons for about a year before we attempted to pass the therapy dog test.

Those group lessons were very focused on the specific challenges of the therapy dog test. To best prepare our dogs, many of the training sessions took place outside on busy sidewalks, in building lobbies and more.

Some of the biggest takeaways from our therapy dog group training are:

  • Teach your dog to greet people as calmly as possible.
  • Your dog shouldn’t jump up or paw at someone’s leg.
  • Your dog shouldn’t bark and wiggle around too much when being greeted.
  • Instead, they should sit or stand calmly as a stranger approaches them.
  • Your dog should be able to heal and walk on a loose leash.

Learning how to greet people calmly was definitely easier for some of the pups in our group classes than others! Being able to sit or lay down and be calm for an extended period of time is important in most therapy dog work.

Set your training up for success with a few key items! Make sure you have plenty of small, healthy training treats. I also think that a treat pouch is essential for training your dog! Here’s a few of my favorites available on Dogly:

Side by Side Turkey Cranberry Soft Treats
Side by Side Yogurt Nuggets Vegetarian Treats
Jiminy’s Low Cal Training Bundle
Mighty Paw Treat Pouch

What Is The Therapy Dog Test?

When I took Lucy to get tested for her official therapy dog certification I was so nervous! I haven’t taken any kind of test since I was in school. But there was no need to be nervous because we were prepared for each task on the test!

Lucy got her certification through Therapy Dogs International (TDI). You can read about the TDI testing requirements on their website. These may differ slightly from tests with other organizations that our friends are certified through like PAWS for People or Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

You can check all of their websites to see exactly what they each test for. All three of these organizations (and many more) are recognized by the AKC. That means that getting certified through them also makes your dog eligible to receive the AKC Therapy Dog title if you’re interested in doing that!

During the test we took with an official TDI evaluator, there were about 8 dogs and their handlers in the room. The dogs were all different breeds, sizes and ages. Some of the handlers (aka owners) had been through the test with previous dogs, but for most of us it was our first time.

The test is full of basic obedience commands like sit-stay, down-stay, loose leash walking, and leave it. While you’re not allowed to use any treats on the test, you are allowed to say anything you need to get your dog to pass. While Lucy was in her down-stay I continued to reinforce the stay verbally and with hand signals and I rewarded her for holding it by saying ‘good girl’ plenty of times!

therapy dogs of pittsburgh event

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Part of the test includes the evaluator bringing out walkers, crutches and a wheelchair to make sure none of the dogs are scared of that equipment. They might even drop a crutch next to your dog to see if they jump or react in some way (the goal is for your dog to not react!).

One part of the test that some dogs struggled with was leaving the room without their owner. The evaluator takes your dog down the hallway without you for a few minutes. In order to pass the test, your dog can’t freak out during this part!

The hardest part of the test for Lucy was when we had to loose-leash walk past a bowl of dog treats on the floor! In fact, she didn’t do a good job the first time through and the evaluator let us try a second time.

The big takeaway from this was that I needed to set Lucy up for success. This part of the test is considered a “leave it” command, but Lucy doesn’t always respond to that. However, I know she’ll focus on me right away with a “look” command that asks her to make eye contact with me. So as we walked past that bowl the second time I used “look” and we passed!

Remember, this a test of your dog! It’s not really a test of your behavior as a dog owner. So don’t be afraid to use the commands that work best for you.

what happens during a therapy dog visit

How Can You Be a Good Therapy Dog Handler?

While the therapy dog test is all about your dog’s behavior,r when you volunteer you’ll have to interact with a lot of people, too. You might want to brush up on your small talk for these visits!

I volunteer with Lucy at a veteran’s assisted living facility. While everyone wants to visit with and pet Lucy, there’s always a lot of time just sitting and visiting with people. They often just want someone to chat with!

Some ideas on things you can talk about:

  • Do they have a dog now?
  • Did they have one growing up?
  • What part of town are they from?
  • Are they going down to bingo/crafts/etc. that day?
  • Talk about your dog and what they like to do, how old they are, and their breed.

If you’re volunteering in a medical facility keep in mind that people may not want to talk about personal details. You definitely shouldn’t talk about the people you visit with outside of the facility. Just be mindful of everyone’s privacy.

Being a good therapy dog handler means that you’re always looking out for your dog’s best interest. If someone makes your dog nervous or is too rough, then move on. Kindly ask people not to give your dog any treats or food. You’ll also want to limit your volunteer visits to a length of time your dog can handle. For Lucy, we spend about 1 hour at the assisted living facility. Any longer than that and she gets tired and doesn’t do her best.

For our therapy dog visits, I always dress casually in pants or shorts and a t-shirt (I have a lot of cute options in my online shop). Since you’ll be bending over a lot to do things with your dog, avoid any low cut tops. I also recommend you wear close-toed shoes or sneakers. If you follow me regularly, then you know I also wear a belt bag or fanny pack (Target has great options) everywhere I go with the dogs. I use that bag to hold a collapsible water bowl for Lucy along with a few emergency treats in case I need them to lure her away from a situation.

Lucy at a Therapy Dog Visit

How Much Does it Cost to Become a Therapy Dog?

There are some costs associated with becoming a certified therapy dog. I think this is all worth it because not only do we enjoy the volunteer work, but Lucy has become such a well behaved dog thanks to the program. Many of these costs are things that I would do for my dog anyhow, like an annual vet exam and vaccinations. Some of the expenses, like the annual fecal exam, are things I do just to stay up to date with TDI.

Some of the costs of becoming (and staying) a therapy dog include:

  • Training classes – $20 – $80 per class
  • Testing Fee – for TDI this is $10
  • Annual Vet Exam – $45 – $55
  • Vaccinations – $80 – $100 each year
  • Fecal Test – done within a year, can cost $25 – $45
  • Heartworm Test – can cost $45 – $50

Most of these expenses are covered under the wellness plan I have with Wagmo so I get 100% reimbursed for them. If you’d like to check that out, use my link to get $10 off your first month!

Therapy dog handlers are not paid. This is all volunteer work. However, you can check with your accountant to see if any of your therapy dog expenses are tax-deductible. Based on my research, you may be able to list your therapy dog expenses as charitable contributions if your volunteer work takes place at a non-profit. That’s definitely something to look into and ask a tax expert about!

Take the BEST Photo of Your Dog

Great photos last a lifetime and remind you of every sweet moment with your pup! My free e-book teaches you how to take professional style photos using just your phone.


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Did you enjoy this post? Check out this related content:
The Best Jobs for Dog Lovers
A New Book to Teach Your Dog Cute and Fun Tricks
Podcast Episode 28: Sheri Soltes of Service Dogs Inc.
From Groovy Goldendoodles: What Makes a Good Therapy Dog?

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