When it comes to unconditional support, man's best friend is particularly suited to the job.

By Kristina Grish
July 22, 2020
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If you've ever snuggled with a cat or dog when you're sick or just a little down, you know how much better doing so can make you feel. Animal therapy is just that: Tapping into the healing power that pets innately possess. After undergoing special training for an animal and its owner, therapy "teams" visit a variety of settings, where they offer comfort and love to someone in need.

What Therapy Animals Do

"Dogs are very intuitive," says Melanie Dunbar, president of Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response (AACR), a national nonprofit that oversees more than 200 canine teams. "They can break through what many people can't." Unlike service dogs or emotional support animals, which provide support to owners with physical or mental disabilities (and undergo months or even years of specialized training to become certified), therapy dogs offer more basic TLC to all sorts of people in a variety of settings—hospitals, hospices, retirement homes, schools, prisons, and mental-health facilities, among other institutions—with shorter, more generalized training.

How to Know If Your Pet Is a Candidate

"Volunteers recognize a healing quality in their dogs," says Rachel McPherson, author of Every Dog Has a Gift: True Stories of Dogs Who Bring Hope and Healing Into Our Lives ($16, barnesandnoble.com) and founder of the Good Dog Foundation, in New York City. Having a friendly pup is, of course, essential, but there are other prerequisites: Your dog must be at least one year old and well behaved—not just at home but in public, where skateboarders and stray chicken bones may startle or distract him. "It's also important that your dog truly enjoy interactions with strangers," adds Mary Margaret Callahan of PetPartners, a national nonprofit that trains and registers therapy teams.

Your enthusiasm is also crucial. Ask yourself if you're willing to commit the time and money to training and therapy visits and if you feel comfortable in potentially emotional situations.

How to Get Certified

Chances are, your pet will need to be screened by a therapy-dog organization. Therapy Dogs International and Delta Society are the largest associations, but smaller ones can be found nationwide—a full list is available at The American Kennel Club. Expect to pay a registration fee; PetPartners charges about $95 for two years. You'll also need to pass an evaluation. (One possible scenario: A stranger gives your dog a full-body hug.) How you respond to your pet is just as critical as its behavior. "We want to see that you can read your dog's body language," says Callahan. A complete vet checkup will also be required before you can register.

Find a Facility That Fits

According to Rachel Wright, Delta Society's Pet Partners program manager, one of the most vital steps is pairing the right dog to the right type of service. Evaluations help determine the program or setting that best complements the team's strength. A pet's personality and maturity also dictate where it works: A young, energetic pooch probably isn't a great fit for seniors but might be a perfect match for teens. If your dog is at least 18 months old and has completed 12 therapy visits, he may be ready to move on to Hope AACR. There, therapy teams are initially screened and evaluated in groups before attending a three-day workshop, during which handlers are schooled in canine behavior, stress signals, and psychological first aid.

It's a huge commitment, but it brings great rewards. "You get folks at these scenes who say, 'I don't want to talk to anybody,' but they'll pet and talk to your dog," says Dunbar. "It's amazing to watch dogs do that work. It's unexplainable magic."

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