Therapy Dog Journey Part One

In this seriesyou will be taken through the steps to train your dog to be a therapy dog. In Therapy Dog Journey Part One, we will give an overview of what a therapy dog is, the training standards for therapy dogs, and the difference between therapy and service dogs.

Get ready! We will do our best to make this a comprehensive collection of information and resources for those looking to train therapy dogs. However, your dog’s success as a therapy dog will depend on your proactive training measures. 

We will refer you to books, online training courses, and videos throughout the series. These resources will teach you on how to raise a puppy fit for therapy work. They will also help guide you on how to complete the training necessary for any therapy candidate to get certified.


What a Therapy Dog Should Be

The dogs who excel as therapy dogs are naturally out-going, friendly, attention-seekers. These dogs thrive on human attention and make it their job to seek it out from even strangers.

Therapy dogs are highly trainable and willing-to-please. Handlers must train their therapy dogs carefully so that their well-behaved presence will be welcome in the community.

These dogs get along with people of all ages and kinds. They are confident in new environments, walking through crowds, being pet by people with different physical abilities, and around loud noises.

For a dog to be a therapy candidate, he must also be friendly towards other dogs. Therapy dog-and-handler teams often work in groups, making visits together and providing crowds with a variety of dogs to enjoy.


Training Goals for a Therapy Dog

Therapy dogs are carefully trained so that they will be welcome in many community facilities. Therapy dogs need to know how to be calm and gentle with sick and disabled patients, including small children and the elderly.

To prepare your dog as a therapy dog, or to raise a puppy as a therapy dog, keep in mind the essential training goals we’ll talk about below.

The test used by most organizations to certify therapy dogs is the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC for short). The ten steps to this test will make up the outline of your training program. The training goals and advice in this article are based on training requirements for the Canine Good Citizen test.

Puppies can be ready to pass the CGC anywhere from one to two years old. Some puppies, especially large breed puppies, do not mature until close to two years of age, so expect these big puppies to need more time. Smaller breeds and faster-maturing puppies may be ready sooner, as soon as one year of age, if they have received the necessary training and socialization.

Adult dogs may take anywhere from a few months to a year to complete the training necessary for therapy work. It is best to evaluate your dog as an individual, according to the Canine Good Citizen standards (or your therapy dog organization’s requirements) and make realistic and honest expectations.


The Canine Good Citizen Test

The Canine Good Citizen test from the American Kennel Club is the most widely used test for testing therapy dog candidates. The test consists of ten steps that evaluate your dog’s behavior, training, and safety in scenarios he will face in real life.

Ten Steps of the Canine Good Citizen 

      1. Accepting a friendly stranger.
      2. Sitting politely for petting.
      3. Appearance and grooming.
      4. Walking on a loose leash.
      5. Walking through a crowd.
      6. Sit, Down, and Stay on command.
      7. Coming when called.
      8. Reaction to another dog.
      9. Reaction to distractions.
      10. Supervised separation.

When training for the CGC keep in mind that you must take the test without using treats or toys, training collars such as choke or prong collars, head halters, or Flexi-leashes. AKC Evaluators expect your dog to be at a level of obedience that does not require lures or training tools. So it is crucial to aim to phase out the use of all treats, toys, and training tools.

Commands to Teach Your Dog

The cues that are necessary to teach your dog include sit, come, down, stay, and leave it. Other words that therapy handlers find it useful to teach their dogs include heel, back up, settle down, left and right for turns, quiet, and watch/look.

Fun tricks can be great entertainment and open the door to engaging children. High-five, shake, beg, pray, spin, dance, and bow are some examples. Teaching a greeting cue like “Say Hi!” can help your dog differentiate when he should greet a person and when he should move on. 

Responsible Dog Owners Pledge

Before you take the CGC test, you will need to sign the Responsible Dog Owners Pledge. This pledge verifies that you, as the owner, will be responsible for your dog.

“Owners also agree to show responsibility by doing things such as cleaning up after their dogs in public places and never letting dogs infringe on the rights of others.”


Raising a Puppy for Therapy Work

Therapy work and the CGC test are excellent training goals for raising puppies. Having these goals will keep you focused on training specific behaviors and, if you stick with it, will produce a pleasing pet and community canine.

Puppies (in specific dogs from 8 weeks to 9 months old for the purpose of this series) have specialized training needs versus adult dogs. Who your dog will be as an adult will depend on how you raise him as a puppy. There will be behaviors in your roly-poly, ten-pound puppy, that won’t be acceptable in a fifty-pound adult dog. There will be positive and negative experiences, or missed experiences, during puppyhood that influence permanent behaviors in the mature adult dog. 

When to Start Training Your Puppy

Puppies are well capable of learning at an early age. They should start basic obedience training at 8 to 10 weeks old. There is a myth that says that you can’t train a puppy until he is six months old. This idea is very detrimental to your puppy’s chance of success as an adult. Please begin training your puppy right away and understand that by six months of age, he will be acting like a half-sized adult.

There are two critical training periods for puppies. The first starts with at 5-weeks-old and ends at 16 weeks. This is the socialization period in which puppies receive lasting impressions from their interactions, or lack of interactions, with people, dogs, and other exposures. Some puppies also experience a fear period during these weeks.

The second stage is from 4-6 months (16 weeks to 24 weeks) and is the adolescent stage. This is the time to refine basic obedience commands and train in new environments with new and increasing distractions.

Training does not end at this point, but your focus may zoom in on more difficult skills such as the heel.


Service Dogs and Therapy Dogs Are Different!

Before we go further into how to train a therapy dog, we need to understand the difference between therapy and service dogs.

The difference between a therapy dog and a service dog can be quite confusing. The information on the internet is hardly helpful, as the terms’ therapy’ and ‘service’ are incorrectly used interchangeably. Therapy dog handlers/owners must understand that their therapy dogs do not have the status and legal rights of Service dogs.

Service dogs are trained to perform a specific task for someone with a  disability. A service dog keeps his owner safe from physical harm and illness, but he ignores other people and doesn’t seek out attention.

Therapy dogs are not trained to perform specific tasks for the disabled but are trained to behave well in the community and to seek attention from many people.

Now the Americans with Disabilities Act protects the rights of Service dog owners to take their dog into businesses with them. Service dogs can only be asked to leave on two conditions. 1) They are out of control, and their owners cannot get them under control, and 2) if they present a threat to the health and safety of the people around them.


Legal Rights for Therapy Dogs

Differing from the rights of service dogs, therapy dog organizations and handlers must have permission to take their therapy dogs into any public facilities. Be forewarned: your therapy dog will not be accepted or allowed to go everywhere with you. 

The law considers therapy dogs to be pets, and all the laws that apply to pets also apply to therapy dogs. If a business has a sign posted reading, “Services animals welcome; no pets allowed,” then therapy dogs are not legally allowed in the building.

To properly make visits to a place such as a hospital or nursing home, you must obtain permission and provide the facility with particular items. These include proof of insurance (provided by your therapy dog organization) and your dog’s proof of rabies vaccination and/or health certificate signed by your veterinarian. These are two important documents that should always be with you.

So please always ask before taking your therapy dog into community facilities (i.e., businesses, healthcare facilities, etc.). This maintains the professionalism and respect of your organization in the sight of your community.

For further reading about the difference between service dogs and therapy dogs, check out this article: What Is a Service Dog?


Follow Along!

The rest of this series will take you through each step of the Canine Good Citizen test. Each article will provide resources and instruction on how to teach your dog the necessary behaviors and commands to pass each step.

Check out Therapy Dog Journey Part 2: Puppy Training and CGC Steps 1 & 3! and start training.


– Cassy Kay & Caliber



AKC Staff. “Therapy Dog Training & Certification” Oct. 5, 2015. Web. Accessed Aug. 31, 2019.

American Kennel Club. “Canine Good Citizen” Web. Accessed Aug. 31, 2019.

American Kennel Club. “An Owner’s Manual for 10 Essential Skills: CGC Test Items” Web PDF. Accessed Aug. 31, 2019.

Canines for Christ. “Steps to Serve” Web. Accessed Aug. 31, 2019.

International Association of Canine Professionals. “Therapy Dog Training” Web. Accessed Aug. 31, 2019.

Lumondtod, Patrick. “What Is a Service Dog?” Sept. 17, 2019. Web. Accessed Sept. 24, 2019.

Zak George’s Dog Training Revolution. “What’s the Difference Between a Service Dog, Therapy Dog, and an Emotional Support Dog?” Dec 30, 2017. Web. Accessed Aug. 31, 2019.


Puppy Raising & Training Resources

Puppy Raising & Training Resources


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