Unlike police and service dogs who wear vests marked “don’t pet me” while working with their handlers, certified therapy dogs are encouraged to socialize with people while they’re on duty. Studies show that interacting with a dog can reduce anxiety and boost one’s mood, so these specially trained dogs visit schools, hospitals, and even airport departure gates to put a smile on everyone’s face.
Becoming a certified therapy dog is a hard test, and many dogs who take it don’t pass.
Before their first day of testing, the dog is evaluated to see if they have the right temperament to be a therapy dog. Then, during the multiple-phase test, the dog is put in a variety of situations that mimic busy hospital entrances and reception desks, and observe to see how they handle crowds of people, chaotic environments, and being around other dogs.
Tests run the gamut, from seeing how well the dog obeys the handler’s commands, to gauging their reaction to loud noises (they can’t get startled by a vacuum cleaner or something dropped on the floor). The dog has to demonstrate a willingness to be petted during visits to groups of children and people who are using crutches, a walker, and a wheelchair. The dog will automatically fail the entire test for jumping during a visit, growling when meeting another dog, or eating a treat that was deliberately placed on the floor—which is tough for many dogs to resist! In order to work at the airport, such as in the Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) program at LAX, the dog is required to undergo additional testing at the terminal, even after they are certified to be a therapy dog.
The next time you see a therapy dog and are encouraged to pet him, don’t be shy to do so. These pups are naturally calm, have their own master’s degree in sociology, and will be the most well-behaved dogs you’ll ever meet.
Sources: Alliance of Therapy Dogs; Therapy Dogs International