How to Become a Therapy Dog

“What kind of therapy do you do?”

As a therapy dog, my job is simply to engage in “therapeutic contact” with people – which means I visit with people and let them pet me and love on me while I wag my tail and body and act like I think they are the greatest thing since peanut butter.  I’m told this lowers their blood pressure, helps them get their minds off of things, and makes them feel better.  I know it makes them smile. 

This is generally what therapy dogs do, so it’s not a specific type of therapy and you don’t have to know how to do anything special, other than behave and allow strangers to pet you.  Sometimes we will do a trick or two if people ask, but primarily we just visit with people.  Most therapy dogs are volunteers and they only work as therapy dogs part-time when they can fit it into their parents’ schedules.

Therapy Dogs are Not the Same as Assistance or Service Dogs

Therapy dogs are not the same as assistance dogs or service dogs.  Assistance/service dogs help people with daily activities, like picking up things, or help guide them, or alert them to an impending seizure or blood sugar problem.  By law, assistance/service dogs may accompany their owners anywhere their owners are allowed.  These are generally full-time working dogs.  Therapy dogs don't have the same rights as assistance/service dogs, and our jobs are nowhere near as demanding.

You Must Enjoy People!

The most important thing about being a therapy dog is that you must like people and enjoy interacting with and being loved on by strangers.  Some GREAT dogs are uncomfortable with strangers.  If it’s something your dog won’t enjoy, it may not be the best activity for you and your dog.  I have some very good friends who are super dogs and incredibly well-behaved, but aren’t really suited to be therapy dogs because they just don’t like strangers.  That’s just their personality and their parents are wise to recognize that and not make them do something that makes them uncomfortable.

How and Why I Became a Therapy Dog

When I was taking Manners Class and getting ready to take my Canine Good Citizen test, our instructor told Mom he thought I would be a great therapy dog because I'm so friendly and I really like people, and he encouraged us to take the therapy dog test too.  I passed my CGC and my Therapy Dog Inc. test, but in order to be registered as a therapy dog, you have to do three observations within 6 months after passing the test.  I was only two years old at the time, and Mom felt like I needed to mature a bit, so we didn’t do the observations within the required time period, and we planned to retake the test at some point but were busy with other things. 

Then one day Mom and I were at a gas station and she was filling up the tank, and my window was rolled down and I was looking around and a woman pulled up on the other side of the gas thing.  The woman was all stressed and busy going about her business getting gas, but when she saw me looking out of my window at her, she stopped and smiled a BIG smile.  She said to my mom, “your dog just made me smile!”  Mom smiled and said, “good!” 

As she was driving home, Mom smiled as she thought about how I just made a stranger smile.  I’m such a sweet, special dog, and I’m so good at making people smile, mom felt like she should share me with other people.  So she signed us up for the next therapy dog test, we did our observations, and I became registered as a Therapy Dog Incorporated therapy dog in February 2011.

How to Become Certified as a Therapy Dog

There are several different national organizations that offer therapy dog testing and registration, Therapy Dogs Inc., Delta Society, and Therapy Dogs International.  I am registered as a therapy dog through Therapy Dogs Inc., and that’s the only organization I know anything about.  If you are in the Richmond, Virginia area, it is easy to be tested and registered through Therapy Dogs Inc., because there are a number of Therapy Dogs Inc. testers and observers in this area.

The Canine Good Citizen test (see AKC Canine Good Citizen testing) is not required in order to become a therapy dog, although for us it was a logical first step.  You must know basic manners and not be frightened by noise, sudden movements, or strange things like wheelchairs or walkers to pass the Therapy Dogs Inc. test.  The best way to prepare for both tests is by taking a basic obedience or manners class (which is a really good idea anyway to learn manners or reinforce what you already know and bond with your human) and being exposed to a variety of different situations.  I took Manners, Agility and Tricks at All Dog Adventures and Tricks and Heeling at Richmond SPCA.

Several times a year CGC and Therapy Dog Inc. testing is scheduled at All Dog Adventures.  Tests are also often offered at doggie events, and there are a number of other testing venues, and/or you can contact a tester directly.  (You can look up Therapy Dog Inc. testers in your area on the Therapy Dog Inc. web site.)  See TDInc.'s FAQs and More About Therapy Dogs for more information.

Once you pass the Therapy Dog Inc. testing, you must do three observations with a Therapy Dog Inc. observer.  When you pass the test, they will give you a list of observation times and dates, and you must do three observations with an official Therapy Dog Inc. observer within 6 months.  Then you send your complete application along with the required veterinary records to Therapy Dog Inc. and they send you your Therapy Dog Inc. identification card.

Then what?

Once you are registered as a therapy dog, you can begin doing therapy visits.  You may either contact facilities directly to schedule visits or join a therapy dog group that schedules the visits for you.  If you are in the Richmond, Virginia area, consider joining Caring Canines.  Mom and I belong to Caring Canines and think it’s a wonderful organization.  Caring Canines schedules the visits, and all we have to do is show up!  

Caring Canines visits hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and libraries.  We even visit a local university to provide stress relief for college students and law students right before exams (see Study Break).  Caring Canines also participates in events throughout the year such as the Henrico Humane Society Pet Expo, the Hounds for Healing Walk, the Richmond SPCA Dog Jog, the Jingle Bell Run, and the Colonial Heights Christmas Parade.

This is me in my Caring Canines cape at the Hounds for Healing Walk

Another wonderful therapy dog program in the Richmond, Virginia area is the VCU Medical Center Dogs on Call program.  My friends Daisy (Daisy's web site) and Kaiya are Dogs On Call.  The great thing about Dogs on Call is that they have dogs at VCU Medical Center EVERY DAY!  This is wonderful for the patients AND the staff.  There are a few additional requirements to join this program – their website should tell you what you need to know.  (See Program Info and VCU Dogs on Call.)

Yet another Richmond area therapy dog program is A Paw A Day.  A Paw A Day visits Westminster Canterbury.  I think the only requirement for this program is CGC certification, so it may be a great starting point if you are interested in therapy dog work.  Contact A Paw A Day for more information about this program.

If you aren't in the Richmond area, try to find a therapy dog group in your local area -- or start one.

Reading Education Assistance Dogs

Once you are a certified therapy dog, you can become a Reading Education Assistance Dog.  READ dogs visit libraries and schools and help children with their reading skills by listening as children read out loud to them.  Because dogs are a nonjudgmental audience, children are more comfortable reading to dogs, and this helps them build confidence in their reading abilities.  It also makes them excited about reading.  How to become a Reading Education Assistance Dog will be the subject of another page.  If you just can't wait, check out Read Team Steps.


  1. Daisy likes this page. Our hearts melt when we see a smile on a sick child or cheer an adult up. The staff at VCU Medical Center call out "Here comes Daisy" as we come down a hallway. Then we are surrounded and Daisy gives the staff a few licks and get lots of hugs and then we are revived to happily continue with the visits.

  2. Thank you so much for this blog-post and your information last night at #BlogPawsChat! We're going to look into the TDI group for Vlad & Barkly first. They allow more than one dog to be tested once Vlad gets his vet-release in January. Vlad & Barkly are a pair, and they don't like going places without each other. Being able to have them both at the same time would help a lot!

  3. Hey Garth! My name is Ricky and I'm a Bedlington terrier, also a therapy dog with TDInc. I love your story! My mom is a tester for TDInc and she said we probably should clarify a couple of things. Dogs don't have to have the CGC before testing for TDInc. It's fine if they do, but it isn't required. And TDInc doesn't actually "certify" us. Our actual term is "Registered Therapy Dog". Service dogs go through training and are "certified" to do certain types of work. Lots of dogs (and people too!) get these terms confused.

    1. Hi Ricky! Thanks for your comment. I'll have my staff update this page. When I was tested for TDInc., they required that I pass the CGC first. They wouldn't let my friend take the TDInc. test because she hadn't passed the CGC. But maybe that has changed or maybe the tester thought if she couldn't pass the CGC, she wouldn't be able to pass the TDInc. test. Thank you also for pointing out the important distinction between therapy dogs and service dogs. My mom has written about the difference between therapy dogs and service dogs and tries to make sure people understand the difference.

    2.'re precious! I'm so glad I found your blog!