Similar to how dogs have been shown to help their owners feel better, therapy dogs are able to bring comfort and support to the public. Therapy dogs are typically social, yet calm dogs who after training and certification can alongside their handler visit people in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and other settings.
There are also crisis response therapy dogs. These are specialized therapy dog and handler teams that dispatch to areas of crisis, such as a grieving community in the aftermath of a natural disaster, mass shooting, or other large-scale tragedies.
Since therapy dog programs began in the 1980s, dogs have been shown to reduce anxiety, can decrease symptoms of depression, and help people feel safer, more relaxed, and less anxious. Therapy dogs are especially beneficial to those who have experienced or survived trauma.
Can Any Dog Be a Therapy Dog?
Although your dog may provide you with comfort and support when you are upset, not all dogs are cut out to be crisis response therapy dogs. Therapy dogs need to have the right temperament coupled with the proper training to do their jobs well.
Crisis response dogs, specifically, need to be able to come into a group or community that has just experienced trauma and provide support and comfort. These dogs need to be highly trained and socialized to be comfortable engaging with a wide diversity of people—and a high volume of petting. They also need to be comfortable being in and moving through crowds, be outgoing, and comfortable engaging with strangers, but also very calm when meeting people.
These dogs must be comfortable with loud noises, like fireworks or ambulances, and people who are experiencing trauma, this may look like people who are catatonic and nonresponsive or people who are hysterically crying or screaming.
What Breeds Are Best Suited?
When evaluating if your dog might be a good candidate for crisis response work temperament is more important than the breed. Some programs use specific breeds of dogs like the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry Golden Retrievers, but any breed of dogs can do this work.
Some popular therapy dog breeds include:
Just because a breed has a reputation of having a disposition that is outgoing and calm doesn’t mean an individual dog will excel or be appropriate for therapy work, or crisis support work. A local trainer or therapy dog organization can support you with assessing your dog’s aptitude for this work.
Are You Ready to Be a Handler?
If you want to train your dog to be a therapy dog or a specialized crisis support dog, it’s important to think about if this is something you will feel comfortable with. Although your dog will be doing the hard work of providing comfort to people in crisis, as the handler you will be witnessing people during some of the worst moments of their life—and you will likely carry that with you.
This can be difficult to witness, and not something everyone will be comfortable with. Training and preparing your dog for this work is a serious commitment and it’s important to think about if you would be comfortable quietly bearing witness to tragedy and pain up close.
There are options for owners who aren’t comfortable, but who have dogs that might excel at therapy work. Therapy dog programs are used in a variety of settings, including some that are less emotionally strenuous like in schools with children who are learning to read.
Where Can I Bring My Therapy Dog?
Therapy dogs do not just show up and do their work. Typically they are invited to visit hospitals, schools, or nursing homes, giving them access to these public locations and these public locations alone. Only service dogs specifically trained to assist a person with a disability to have public access rights and can accompany their owner/handler to places that aren’t usually welcoming to dogs. Even with their vest on, a therapy dog does not garner special treatment for being allowed in not dog-friendly places or on airplanes without the proper paperwork.
Crisis Therapy Dog Training
Some people begin preparing their dogs as puppies for a future in therapy work when they are at the beginning of their training stages, while other dogs discover their calling later in life. But dogs must be at least a year old to become certified. Some crisis therapy dogs are owned and trained by organizations that specialize in this work, while others volunteer with their owners.
The training itself is not easy. These dogs are going into delicate situations to support children and adults who are grieving and upset and need to be gentle, social, and calm. Training for this work is about honing these dogs’ natural sociability and stable temperament. Dogs are taught to be calm and focused when in crowds, be able to be handled by multiple people, and engage with people of all ages.
If you are wanting to explore if your dog has the right stable, calm, and outgoing temperament to become a therapy dog a good place to start is with the AKC Canine Good Citizen program. This test doesn’t prepare your dog for the rigorous work of being a therapy dog, but it will give you an indication that you’re on the right path towards exploring if your dog has some of the basic manners that will be needed for this work.
Therapy dog organizations across the country also provide training classes and support for owners interested in training their dogs to become certified for this work. These programs provide assessments for aptitude, certifications, and in some instances training to help dogs to be calm and attentive in a variety of situations.
Getting a Therapy Dog Certification
If you think that you would like to do crisis response work with your dog the first step is to get involved as a therapy dog handler. Therapy dog organizations provide certifications for dogs and provide them with volunteer opportunities to support people and programs in their community, or places across the country experiencing a crisis around.
If you’d like to get involved with your dog, look for programs near you that can provide training and certification opportunities. Active working therapy dogs certified through these organizations are also eligible to be recognized with an AKC Therapy Dog title.