therapy dog by swimming pool

The Ins and Outs of Therapy Animals

Therapy Animals

Therapy Animals are NOT Service Animals

Our first article in this series provided detailed information on service dogs and miniature horses – yes, horses!  This installment is all about therapy dogs and the third and last installment in this series will be about Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Dogs.  As we learned from our first article, a service animal is defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.” In March 2011, the ADA was revised to include miniature horses in the definition of “service animal”.

So What are Therapy Animals?

Like service animals, therapy animals can be highly trained, have a variety of tasks and are working dogs but unlike service dogs they are not required or trained to “work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.”  Instead, therapy animals, most often dogs, provide psychological or physiological therapy to people other than their owners or handlers.  You may have seen a therapy dog in a nursing home, day care centers, group homes, rehabilitation centers, hospital, school, hospice or therapist’s office and seen the dog interacting with a variety of individuals.  Service animals are trained to work for one person with specific disabilities but therapy dogs are trained to work with anyone who needs the unique therapy animals provide to their human companions.  Unlike service animals, therapy animals are encouraged to interact with anyone who needs a bit of ‘therapizing’.

Lulu is a therapy dog who works at the Ballard-Durand Funeral & Cremation Services funeral home in White Plains, New York.  Her pet parent, who owns the funeral home, was comforted by a fellow traveler’s therapy dog in an airport after missing a flight and realized that a dog would probably provide great comfort to grieving families at the funeral home.  Here is a video about Lulu’s work.

Oscar is a therapy cat who became famous for being able to predict – with 100% accuracy – the imminent death of hospice patients!  Katie Couric even did an Eye to Eye CBS news report about Oscar’s work.

Cats and dogs are the only animals who can be therapy animals.  At Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas, the animals and their handlers “regularly visit special-needs organizations and classrooms, hospitals, senior communities, and rehab facilities throughout Portland, OR and Vancouver, WA. Research has shown that animals help humans by acting as social bridges, reducing blood pressure, directing thoughts outward, and serving as strong motivators for accomplishing difficult tasks.”

Buttercup is a potbelly pig who works with her human companion, speech pathologist Lois Brady, in Animal Assisted Therapy, helping autistic and special needs children in the San Francisco area.

As you can see, therapy animals come in all shapes, sizes and types, work in lots of different environments and perform a variety of services for a wide range of people from children to the elderly.

What does it take to become a therapy animal?

 Therapy animals must, first and foremost, have the type of temperament which will enable them to interact with a wide range of people, in a variety of settings.  If you have an animal you think might be a good candidate to become a therapy animal, here is some information you will want to consider:

  • A therapy animal can be trained by anyone and some won’t even need that much training if they are naturally interactive, friendly, patient and empathetic.
  • Most therapy animals, especially therapy dogs, do get basic obedience training.
  • There are therapy dog registration organizations but remember that even if you do register your dog, she will still not be considered a service dog under the law. See our service dog article for a discussion of applicable regulations and a chart showing the differences between service, therapy and emotional support animals.
  • Most of the registration organizations will require current vaccination, annual wellness exams and health records for the therapy animal and will charge an annual or bi-annual registration fee.
  • Some businesses and clinical institutions may allow your therapy animal access for the benefit of employees, customers, patients or residents, as the case may be, but you won’t generally have the right to be accompanied by your therapy animal where pets are not permitted.
  • Most therapy animals are handled by their owner but some, such as those involved in Animal Assisted Therapy, may be handled by the clinical professional whose patients are being assisted.

Therapy Dog Organizations

There are a number of organizations which will register your companion animal as a “Therapy Animal” but most of them register only dogs.  Based on our survey of some of these organizations, therapy dog registration can vary from $30 per year to $95 for a two-year registration.  Some registration organizations include liability insurance as part of the registration fee and others do not so be sure to check the benefits offered for the organization you are considering.

Here is a partial listing of therapy dog organizations:

The Delta Society

Therapy Dogs International

Therapy Dogs Incorporated

Tell us about your journey

 If you and your companion animal decide to go down the therapy animal road, please let us know how you went about it and send us some stories about people you’ve helped and adventures you’ve had.


©Onpets, LLC 2016.  All rights reserved.

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