Does Fido have what it takes to be a therapy dog?

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Therapy dogs have been in the news a lot lately. They’ve been comforting humans affected by tragedies such as the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey, and most recently the Boston Marathon bombings.

What’s the difference between a therapy dog, versus a service animal? Simply put, service animals are raised and trained from an early age to perform specific duties to assist disabled humans in all ways from the so-called “seeing eye dog” to helping autistic kids, paraplegics and quadraplegics, and those suffering from post-traumatic stress. Service dogs must be permitted to enter buildings and transportation systems where dogs are not normally allowed such as supermarkets, trains, the passenger section of airplanes, churches, restaurants, and more. Specific breeds are favored for service animals, such as Labrador or Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherd Dogs, because these canines have proven to be the most reliable in learning the special techniques necessary to become a qualified service dog.

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, can be any breed, size or age. A simple set of requirements, a training course, and the willingness to volunteer at hospitals, schools, assisted-living facilities, crisis centers, rehabilitation centers, private homes and other venues is all your dog needs to become a certified therapy dog. Each state in the U.S. should have its own set of rules and guidelines, training centers and courses for inclusion in a therapy dog program. Do your homework and start locally. The best courses run about 12 weeks, and then you and your dog can be on your way to providing helpful therapy to those in need. The dog and handler will undergo an assessment and must meet specific, strict criteria to become a therapy team.

Most programs require a similar set of criteria. For starters, the dog must have an outstanding temperament and be accepting and tolerant of all types of humans and situations. The dog needs to be friendly and welcoming to all people: women, men, children, babies, old, young, and various ethnicities. The animal must be tolerant, predictable and friendly toward other dogs, and non-aggressive toward cats and other types of pets.

Some programs require that the dog be over one year in age, and others require that he or she be more than two years old. The dog must be healthy and up-to-date on all vaccines and licensing; must be clean, groomed and parasite-free, and must know and obey basic commands sit, stay, heel, and down. A good therapy dog should be happy while working. Note that most programs do not allow a service dog to also become a therapy dog!

Once the dog and handler have been accepted into a therapy dog program, they will become certified and then can get started providing much-needed comfort to those in need.

For more information on therapy dog programs available in your area, type “How to become a therapy dog in [your State]” into any search engine.

K.S. Mueller is a travel executive living in Massachusetts who writes essays about dogs, cats and other topics in her spare time. Check out her web sites: ksmueller.comk2k9.com; and fibroworks.com. Follow K.S.Mueller on Facebook and Twitter.

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