What is a Therapy Dog?What is a therapy dog

On May 18, tens of thousands of volunteers across the US will get extra scratches behind the ears and tasty treats in gratitude for the work they do in schools, libraries, hospitals, and retirement communities. The first National Therapy Animal Day will recognize the trained critters and human handlers who make the time to comfort and entertain people in all kinds of settings. The holiday, created by therapy-animal group Pet Partners, is also intended to let more people know about the benefits of therapy dogs.

What exactly is a therapy dog?

Therapy dogs are trained and registered or certified to provide companionship to people in a wide range of settings. Unlike service and guide dogs, therapy dogs don’t undergo the rigorous training required to assist disabled individuals. They’re almost always family pets who have trained with a local or national animal welfare group to work well with members of their community.

Many therapy dogs visit senior communities to entertain residents and give them some cuddle time; others go to schools so children can practice reading to them. Some do specialized work such as visiting disaster sites and emergency shelters to offer residents and rescuers some calm during a crisis. Still other therapy dogs provide comfort in hospices and at funerals.

Pets are like children; therapy dogs are like grandchildren

There’s been lots of research about the value of pets for older adults, including friendship, a reason to keep a daily routine of walks and outside time, a reduction in stress during snuggle time, and a built-in barking security system. But pet ownership has drawbacks too, like the cost of veterinary care and the risk that a pet may trip its owner. 88-year old Queen Elizabeth of England, a lifelong corgi enthusiast, famously announced this spring that she won’t be adding any more of the low-slung pups to her household because she’s worried about falls.

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, are all about fun. They come over to play, relax, and get showered with affection. Then they go home, where someone else takes care of the walks, grooming, and vet bills. Senior centers, nursing homes, and retirement communities are popular venues for regular therapy dog visits, and some dogs and handlers will make individual home visits as well. Therapy dog visits are free because the dogs and their human handlers are donating their time.

Where to find therapy dogs for seniors in your area

The largest therapy pet organizations in the US are Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs International, and the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Such organizations train dogs and their handlers, may provide insurance for volunteers, and ensure that the dogs’ vaccinations are up to date. The American Kennel Club maintains a huge list of more than 120 national, regional, and city therapy dog groups as well. Most of these groups have partnerships with local senior centers, assisted living facilities, libraries, and other venues, and they typically welcome inquiries from people looking to set up volunteer visits. For seniors who want the companionship and stress relief a canine pal can provide but can’t assume the responsibility of round-the-clock dog ownership, therapy dogs are a smart (and adorable) alternative.


We’re celebrating National Pet Month on Facebook!

Head over to our Facebook page for more pet-related fun, including our Which SeniorAdvisor.com Dog Are You? quiz AND our photo contest, where you can submit a photo of your favorite furry friend for a chance to win a $100 Petsmart Gift Card!

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer whose childhood was made awesome by her grandmothers, great-grandmother, great-aunts and -uncles, and their friends.


  1. Linda May 30, 2015 Reply

    Thank you, great article about dog’s training. I found more about obedience training specifically here

  2. ibrahim October 2, 2016 Reply

    This ia a very educating article indeed. This is the first time I’m knowing about therapy dogs. I have heard of service dogs and guard dogs but not therapy dogs. I think a good pet dog in the home, could be a therapy dog without the training. Afterall we are supposed to love our pets and have quality time with them too.

  3. Karen November 4, 2016 Reply

    Thanks for sharing!
    I think a good pet dog in the home, could be a therapy dog without the training.

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