Therapy Animals of all Breeds Help Multiple People Heal

therapy dog at workIf you have a pet that consoles you, loves you, cheers with you and knows just what to do to make you feel better, you might have considered your dog for pet therapy or pet visitations.

Several local facilities, from hospitals and nursing homes to schools encourage the interaction of pets and the humans there.

Julie Gray, volunteer services coordinator at Carolinas Healthcare Systems (CHS), shares many stories of success with pet visitation. “It’s a fantastic program,” she said. “We have had non-responsive patients get a visit from one of our (human-pet) teams, and the (patient’s) fingers will move or a tear will come out of their eye. It’s awesome.”

Therapy dogs alleviate stress, lower blood pressure and positively impact those they visit. “The anxiety is real” for patients, families and medical staff, Gray said. “If the staff has lost a patient that day, a pet visit can provide such relief, because there are no words,’ she explained. 

All dogs are not suited to be therapy dogs, but many sizes and breeds participate, from a small yorkie to a Swiss Mountain dog. Mixed breeds and rescued dogs are also welcome.

Maxine German is a pet therapy tester for the Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD). Formerly Therapy Dogs, Inc., this organization provides testing to meet the requirements of registering dogs after three supervised visits with a veteran pet therapy team. Teams are comprised of the handler and the pet. A therapy dog can have more than one handler, and a handler can have more than one therapy dog, but each human and dog must test and visit together individually. A husband and wife can both take a therapy dog for visits, but both must test individually with the dog to register as a team. Only the tested and registered handler may take the pet therapy dog on visits.

ATD provides insurance for the therapy dog teams that represent their program, and will test “junior handlers” under age 18, but a parent must accompany the minor for the test and visits. CHS prohibits pet therapy handlers under age 18 for insurance purposes. All pet therapy dogs at CHS must be affiliated with ATD because of their organization’s policies and insurance coverage.

What is required of a Pet Therapy Dog?

  1. Good personality, good natured
  2. Well-behaved
  3. Able to walk on a loose leash


  1. At least one year old
  2. A close relationship between dog and owner for at least three months
  3. Successfully complete ATD test
  4. Verification from veterinarian that the dog is up-to-date on shots and has a recent negative fecal exam. (A rabies certificate and not just a tag is required.) The test costs a nominal fee, and membership is only $30 each year after the additional administrative fee of $10 the first year.
  5. Meet with the examiner about 30 minutes before the first visit to test and begin the first of three supervised visits. The three visits can be with three different testers.

ATD trainers take a detailed essay exam and must provide references from people who have known the trainer as a pet owner.

Are there other recommendations before testing?

  1. German recommends a Canine Good Citizen test, which teaches dogs to be well-mannered and well-behaved. 
  2. While some people can train puppies on their own, others benefit from a structured class. But successful training ALWAYS depends on the owners’ consistency in continuing the training. German has found the PetSmart Puppy Training Program to be helpful, and recommends some form of puppy training for all dogs. 
  3. Socialize the dog anywhere and everywhere you can. German takes her potential therapy dogs on outings to meet 100 strangers and records distinguishing characteristics such as gender, age, height, “with a hat”, etc. Some dogs do not like men in hats! So that’s one example of how a dog would be disqualified. “It is EXTREMELY important to socialize your dog,” German said.

Some dog trainers offer therapy dog classes, but these are not required. If you use a pet therapy trainer, verify their experience and credentials, ask about the training they took and that they offer, and ask for references. Alison Pennington owns a pet therapy dog that goes into special needs classrooms and works with autistic children. They also visits nursing homes. With years’ of pet therapy experience, she offers therapy dog classes privately and in a group setting. Beyond basic puppy manners and canine good citizenship training, Perfect Pet Dog Training’s seven-week pet therapy class discusses organizations that offer pet therapy and situations that the team might encounter. Pennington adds that “a handler must be able to read their dog and know what its stress signals are, when it needs to leave or what ‘that look’ means. It is our responsibility to keep our dogs safe and comfortable as well as those we are visiting.”

What excludes a dog from qualifying as a registered pet therapy dog?

  1. Any aggression toward people or animals
  2. Barking or lunging – German warns that you never know when your therapy dog will encounter another animal. ATD therapy dogs are required to stay at least two feet apart. And they are trained to know when they are “at work”. Therapy dogs must understand that they interact with people and not other pets when they are “working”.
  3. Not meeting requirements above

What breeds can be registered pet therapy dogs?

Any breed can be a pet therapy dog. German has tested labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, great danes, pit bulls, goldendoodles, and her own yorkie. CHS offers therapy dogs ranging from a miniature sheltie to a Swiss mountain dog. 

Can any individual work with pet therapy dogs?

“It takes a special dog and a special person,” Gray said.

Each facility has its own requirements for volunteers, and, but the team of pet and owner must be comfortable in the setting they visit. So pet therapy coordinators put teams where they work best. Some animals do better in schools than hospitals, for example. Then the visits are suited to the pet’s comfort level and the owner’s availability. CHS has pet visitation daily.

Because dogs are empathetic, sometimes the pain and sickness in a hospital atmosphere is overwhelming. So those pets are better suited to other areas.

All races, genders, religions, and ages are welcome as pet therapy handlers (with some restrictions for minors), and German works with a disabled woman who takes her own service dog as a pet therapy dog because she knows the impact the dog had in her healing.

How many therapy dogs visit in our area?

German has about 20 teams through “”Paws Together” that visit elementary schools, mental health centers, children’s homes and assisted living facilities in Rock Hill, York, and Charlotte, as well as Piedmont Medical Center. Gray works with about 25 teams in the CHS network.

Both groups will visit patients specific floors and patients by request. Some even visit homes on request. German and her team sat shivah with a Jewish family after a patient left the hospital.

Are there other groups in our area? 

1. Canine Crew Charlotte Douglas International Airport provides support for travelers, to calm anxiety. “We just like to make people smile,” German said.

2. Paws for Reading works with children who have difficulty reading, learning disabilities, or anxiety disorders to practice their reading skills in a non-judgmental environment, both in schools and libraries.

3. Many other programs are available regionally and across the country.

If you would like your dog to be considered for pet therapy, visit the links provided above. Then you can contact the volunteer coordinator or activities director at locations you wish to visit with your registered therapy dog. Trainers and testers can also direct you.

Still have questions? Search “pet therapy” on-line or if you see a pet therapy dog in a public place, ask the owner. “Everyone loves to talk about their dog!” German says with a smile that comes through the telephone. “I love introducing others to the world of pet therapy. It is full of infinite possibilities.”

By Beth Crosby