Menu toggle icon.
Menu toggle icon.

AKC Therapy Dog

AKC Therapy Dog with a child.
Owned by: Tonya Christiansen

Overview of AKC Therapy Dog Program

The American Kennel Club (AKC) Therapy Dog Program is a testament to the remarkable impact that dogs can have on human lives. This program recognizes and celebrates the volunteer service provided by dogs and their owners in various therapeutic settings. Unlike Service Dogs, which are trained to perform tasks for individuals with disabilities, Therapy Dogs are trained to provide comfort, affection, and joy to a broad range of people.

Program Development & Purpose

The AKC Therapy Dog Program was developed in response to the growing recognition of the therapeutic effects dogs have on humans. These positive influences have been observed in numerous settings, including hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and disaster areas. The program’s primary aim is to acknowledge the invaluable contribution of dogs towards improving emotional, psychological, and physical aspects of human health.

Benefits of Therapy Dogs

The presence of Therapy Dogs has shown to yield significant benefits in various environments:

  • Hospitals: Patients exhibit reduced stress levels and improved recovery rates.
  • Schools: Children show improvements in reading skills and general social interactions.
  • Elderly Care Facilities: Senior citizens experience enhanced social engagement and reduced feelings of loneliness.
  • Disaster Areas: Therapy Dogs provide emotional support to individuals coping with trauma.

Therapy Dogs are known for their ability to uplift moods, provide comfort, and bring smiles in times of stress or loneliness. Their role is especially crucial in settings where individuals cannot maintain pets of their own, offering patients and residents a chance to interact with a compassionate animal companion.

Distinction from Service Dogs

It is important to distinguish Therapy Dogs from Service Dogs. Service Dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for individuals with disabilities and have legal access rights to various public spaces. In contrast, Therapy Dogs do not have the same access rights and are primarily focused on providing emotional support and comfort. Misrepresenting a Therapy Dog as a Service Dog is both unethical and illegal.

Titles & Recognition in the AKC Therapy Dog Program

The AKC Therapy Dog Program offers several titles, each reflecting a different level of commitment and experience in therapy work. These titles are a way to recognize the dedication and effort of Therapy Dogs and their handlers in providing comfort and support to people in need.

AKC Therapy Dog Titles

  • AKC Therapy Dog Novice (THDN): Awarded to dogs that have completed 10 therapy visits. This title is the starting point for dogs entering therapy work and demonstrates a basic commitment to the Therapy Dog program.
  • AKC Therapy Dog (THD): This title is for dogs that have completed 50 therapy visits. It signifies a deeper commitment and experience in therapy work.
  • AKC Therapy Dog Advanced (THDA): Earned after completing 100 visits. This advanced title reflects a significant contribution to therapy work and a sustained commitment to volunteering.
  • AKC Therapy Dog Excellent (THDX): Dogs that have completed 200 therapy visits receive this title. It represents an extensive dedication to therapy work and a profound impact on the communities they serve.
  • AKC Therapy Dog Distinguished (THDD): The highest standard, awarded to dogs that have completed 400 visits. This title honors the extraordinary commitment and exceptional service of the dog and handler in the field of therapy work.

Criteria for Earning Titles

To earn these titles, Therapy Dogs must be:

  • Registered or listed with the AKC, either through a purebred registration or an AKC Canine Partners listing for mixed breed dogs.
  • Certified or registered with an AKC-recognized Therapy Dog organization.
  • Able to document the required number of visits for each title. A single visit counts as one therapy session at a facility per day, regardless of the number of people interacted with during the visit.
  • It is important to maintain accurate records of each therapy visit, as this documentation will be required when applying for the titles.

Significance of These Titles

Earning an AKC Therapy Dog title is not just about the recognition. It symbolizes the dog and handler’s dedication to bringing joy and comfort to others. It also represents the handler’s commitment to responsible dog ownership and the well-being of their dog. These titles can encourage others to participate in therapy work and highlight the important role that dogs play in improving human lives.

Two therapy dogs lying on a pillow.
Owned by: Tonya Christiansen

Qualifications & Training for the AKC Therapy Dog Program

On the journey towards becoming a recognized Therapy Dog in the AKC Therapy Dog Program, dogs and their handlers must navigate through a series of qualifications and training that ensure they are well-prepared for the role. This process begins with meeting basic age and health criteria, where dogs must be at least one year old and in good health, considering they will be interacting with diverse groups of people, including those with compromised immune systems.

The temperament of a Therapy Dog is crucial; they should exude calmness and friendliness, comfortably mingling with various people in different settings. Aggression or excessive shyness are traits that disqualify dogs from being suitable for therapy work. Alongside temperament, ensuring that dogs are up-to-date on vaccinations and regular health checks is essential to safeguard the health of both the dog and the people they visit.

The training process for a Therapy Dog begins with mastering basic obedience skills. Commands like sit, stay, come, down, and heel are foundational, ensuring the dog is well-behaved and manageable during therapy sessions. A significant milestone in this training journey is achieving the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certification. This program tests a dog’s social skills and manners, aspects that are critical for a Therapy Dog.

However, training for Therapy Dogs goes beyond basic obedience. They undergo specialized training tailored to the unique challenges of therapy work, including exposure to different environments, handling by strangers, and navigating unexpected situations. This specialized training prepares them to be adaptable and comfortable in various therapeutic settings.

Certification is another key component of the process. Dogs must be certified or registered with a Therapy Dog organization recognized by the AKC. These organizations are responsible for evaluating a dog’s readiness for therapy work and ensuring the dog meets the necessary standards. But the training and learning don’t stop there. Therapy Dogs and their handlers are encouraged to engage in continuous training and socialization, enhancing and maintaining their therapy skills.

The handler plays a pivotal role in this partnership. Handlers must be adept at reading their dog’s body language, understanding the dog’s limits, and ensuring the dog’s well-being during visits. Ethical considerations are paramount; handlers must respect the policies of the facilities they visit and make sure the dog’s work is a positive experience for everyone involved.

Certification Process for the AKC Therapy Dog Program

The process of certifying a Therapy Dog in the AKC Therapy Dog Program involves several key steps. This certification is crucial to ensure that the dogs and their handlers are well-prepared and meet the standards required for therapy work.

Step 1: Training & Socialization

  • Basic Obedience Training: Begin with basic obedience training to be sure the dog can follow essential commands such as sit, stay, come, down, and heel.
  • Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Certification: It is highly recommended to complete the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen program, which tests a dog’s social skills and basic manners in a community setting.
  • Specialized Therapy Dog Training: Enroll in a specialized Therapy Dog training course. These courses are often offered by Therapy Dog organizations and are designed to prepare the dog for the specific challenges and environments encountered in therapy work.

Step 2: Certification by an AKC-Recognized Therapy Dog Organization

  • Choose a Recognized Organization: Select a Therapy Dog organization that is recognized by the AKC. These organizations have specific standards and testing procedures to evaluate whether a dog is suitable for therapy work.
  • Evaluation & Testing: The chosen organization will evaluate the dog’s temperament, behavior, and ability to handle various therapy environments. This often includes testing how the dog reacts to unfamiliar people, loud noises, medical equipment, and other common scenarios in therapy settings.
  • Registration: Once the dog passes the evaluation, they will be registered or certified by the Therapy Dog organization.

Step 3: Documentation of Visits

  • Record Keeping: Keep a detailed record of each therapy visit. These records are crucial for applying for AKC Therapy Dog titles.
  • AKC Therapy Dog Title Application: After completing the required number of visits for a specific title, apply for the AKC Therapy Dog title through the AKC website. The application will require proof of the number of visits completed.

Step 4: Maintaining Certification

  • Ongoing Training: Continuous training and socialization are important to maintain the dog’s skills and behavior.
  • Regular Health Checks: Regular health checks are necessary to ensure the dog remains healthy and fit for therapy work.
  • Renewal of Certification: Some Therapy Dog organizations require periodic reevaluation or renewal of the certification.
Therapy dog with people.
Owned by: Tonya Christiansen

Volunteering as a Therapy Dog Team

Volunteering with a Therapy Dog is a rewarding experience that brings joy and comfort to many. The journey of a Therapy Dog team, comprising the dog and its handler, begins with a commitment to making a positive difference in the lives of others.

Getting Started

The initial step for potential volunteers is to identify suitable facilities and environments for therapy visits. These may include hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and other venues where people can benefit from the therapeutic presence of a dog. Understanding the needs and rules of these facilities is crucial. Some places might have specific requirements or preferences when it comes to Therapy Dog visits.

Preparation for Visits

Before embarking on visits, it is important for the handler to make sure their dog is well-prepared and comfortable with the environment. This includes being familiar with the facility’s layout, the type of interactions expected, and any potential stressors for the dog. Handlers should always have a clear plan for each visit, including the duration and activities planned.

Building Relationships

The essence of Therapy Dog visits lies in building relationships with the people they meet. Therapy Dogs often provide emotional support, help to reduce stress and anxiety, and bring smiles to faces. For children, interaction with a Therapy Dog can enhance learning experiences, such as reading programs in schools.

Handling Various Situations

Handlers should be adept at managing different situations that may arise during visits. This includes understanding how to navigate crowded or loud environments, and how to interact with people who have varying levels of comfort with dogs. The handler must always be attentive to the dog’s behavior and well-being, ensuring the dog is not overwhelmed or stressed.

Reflecting on Visits

After each visit, it is beneficial for the handler to reflect on the experience, considering what went well and what could be improved. This reflection helps with enhancing future visits and ensuring that both the dog and the people visited have the best possible experience.

The Impact of Therapy Dog Work

The work of a Therapy Dog team goes beyond mere visits. It is about touching lives, providing comfort in difficult times, and bringing a unique form of therapy that only a canine companion can offer. The impact of this work is often profound, leaving lasting impressions on all those whose lives are impacted by the visits.


AKC Therapy Dog


Showsight Magazine | February 2024

February 2024 Vol. 32 No. 2

on sale now