If you’ve ever felt depressed, anxious or traumatized from a dire situation, you may benefit from an animal-assisted therapy (AAT) dog. An AAT dog is well-trained, with the right temperament to provide the best canine care and comfort.
While different from a certified service animal, therapy dogs have their place in aiding humans who are sick, injured and struggling. They may not have undergone the same training as their service dog counterparts, but they are just as gentle and loyal.
Maybe you’ve seen them on TV after a terrible event or were visited by one during a hospital stay. You might wonder if any dog — including yours — can become a therapy dog and whether they differ from a service dog. Here’s everything you need to know about registering your dog as an AAT animal.
What Is an Animal-Assisted Therapy Dog?
There are key differences between a service dog vs. a therapy dog. Certified service dogs are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). They’re trained to perform specific tasks related to a person’s disability, while animal-assisted therapy dogs are not. Instead, therapy dogs comfort individuals in hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, disaster areas and other public spaces.
Studies have long shown the mental health benefits of being around dogs. Just 10 minutes with a therapy dog can help ease students’ anxiety. As such, therapy dogs often visit schools following tragedies. Even as recently as 2022, students in Uvalde, Texas, were greeted by 10 golden retriever comfort dogs upon their return to school after 19 classmates and two faculty members died during a shooting.
Although therapy dogs should receive some form of behavioral training — at-home lessons will suffice — they don’t undergo comprehensive training and certification like service dogs. For this reason, they aren’t allowed everywhere. For example, hotels may charge guests an additional fee to accommodate animal-assisted therapy dogs. Restrictions are also possible if the hotel has a no-pet policy.
Service Dogs Have Fewer Restrictions
Unlike therapy dogs, being protected under the ADA enables service dogs to travel with their owners into businesses, planes, restaurants and hotels, regardless of whether or not these places are pet-friendly. A hotel cannot charge guests or deny access to their service dog during stays — even if the hotel strictly prohibits pets. The same goes for grocery stores or medical offices.
Service dogs benefit those with physical and mental disabilities the most, including injured war veterans and children. A child unable to use stairs by age five or who struggles to balance may need a service dog to help them get around.
Can Your Dog Become an Animal-Assisted Therapy Animal?
Any breed can become an AAT dog if they have the right temperament and are at least a year old. Many dog owners train their dogs themselves or seek formal lessons to ensure their pets behave appropriately.
Some owners may want to undergo therapy dog training with their dogs to ensure they’re ready for visitations with the public. You might participate in an AKC Therapy Dog Program or a similar course with another organization.
The AKC distinguishes your therapy dog under various titles based on the number of visitations they’ve completed. Each visit must last two hours in one day to count toward each title. For example, you can visit four people in two hours at one facility, go home for lunch and visit a second facility for another two hours. This counts as two visitations.
Your dog may start by receiving the AKC Therapy Dog Novice title after 10 visits. After 600 visits, the AKC recognizes them as AKC Therapy Dog Supreme.
Registering your therapy dog is technically voluntary, though. There are a lot of people who benefit from these comfort pups, regardless. Consider that one in three people is diagnosed with malignant cancers — many hospital patients could use extra love from a furry visitor.
Of course, your dog must be friendly to be a therapy dog. While all breeds — including mixed breeds — can become animal-assisted therapy dogs, some innately possess the best personalities for the job.
A Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is highly affectionate and enjoys attention from people. They’re also adaptable and non-aggressive in unfamiliar situations, ensuring you won’t run into issues during visits.
Golden retrievers are another well-recognized therapy or comfort dog. You’ll often see them visiting hospital patients and nursing facility residents. They’re also excellent with children.
Overall, your dog should be gentle, friendly, patient and comfortable in all situations. They must also like pets and hugs from humans — especially strangers.
Where to Find an Animal-Assisted Therapy Dog
Although you can adopt and train a dog to become an animal-assisted therapy dog, you could find one through a reputable breeder or trainer instead. However, this underscores another difference between a service dog vs. a therapy dog.
A service animal is far more costly and has specific training to assist a person with physical and auditory disabilities, children, or veterans. If you or a loved one require a service dog, you can apply for one through an organization like Canine Companions or one similar.
Canine Companions notes one-third of its service dogs become therapy dogs after training and working. Adopting a therapy dog from an organization could be far less expensive than a service dog, but this is based on a person’s needs.
A Therapy Dog Brings Comfort to All
Owning an animal-assisted therapy dog can help you easily get through some of life’s hardships. However, those that train their dogs to become comfort companions find it fulfilling to share their dogs with others through visitations.