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How to Choose a Therapy Dog: Tips & Temperament

Updated: Feb 25

In today's fast-paced world, the therapeutic benefits of animals, particularly dogs, have gained widespread recognition.


Among these, therapy dogs stand out for their ability to provide comfort, support, and companionship to individuals in various settings. Whether in hospitals, nursing homes, or educational institutions, therapy dogs play a vital role in improving the well-being of those they interact with. 


therapy dog on a walk

Let’s talk about the essential aspects of choosing a therapy dog, from understanding their characteristics to finding the perfect companion for therapy work.


Understanding Therapy Dogs

Unlike service dogs, which are specifically trained to assist individuals with disabilities, therapy dogs are trained to interact with and provide companionship to people in need. Similarly, therapy dogs differ from emotional support animals, which offer comfort to their owners but are not necessarily trained to work in public settings.


The key characteristics and temperament required in therapy dogs are crucial for their success in therapy work. One of the most important traits is calmness. Therapy dogs must remain composed and relaxed, even in potentially stressful or unfamiliar environments. This calm demeanor helps create a soothing atmosphere for those they interact with, whether it's patients in hospitals, residents in nursing homes, or students in schools.


Sociability is another essential trait for therapy dogs. They should be friendly, outgoing, and enjoy interacting with people of all ages and backgrounds. This friendly nature allows therapy dogs to form connections with individuals they meet, making them effective in providing emotional support and companionship.


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Adaptability is also a key characteristic of successful therapy dogs. They must be able to adjust to different environments and situations, whether it's navigating crowded hospital corridors, visiting classrooms filled with energetic children, or comforting elderly residents in quiet nursing home settings. Adaptable dogs can thrive in diverse therapy settings and meet the varying needs of the individuals they serve.


Additionally, therapy dogs should exhibit patience and tolerance. They may encounter people who are unfamiliar with dogs or who have limited mobility or communication abilities. Dogs with a patient and tolerant nature can handle these interactions with ease, remaining calm and gentle in all circumstances.


Furthermore, therapy dogs should be well-behaved and obedient. They must respond reliably to commands from their handlers, ensuring they can be safely controlled in any situation. This obedience is essential for maintaining a safe and positive therapy environment for both the dog and the individuals they interact with.


Benefits of Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs offer a wide range of benefits to individuals across different settings, making a significant impact on their mental and emotional well-being. From patients to residents in facilities, from students to families in diverse housing situations, therapy dogs provide comfort, companionship, and support in various ways.


In hospitals, therapy dogs play a crucial role in enhancing the healing process for patients. Numerous studies have shown that interactions with therapy dogs can reduce stress, anxiety, and pain levels among patients undergoing medical treatments or recovering from surgeries.


The presence of therapy dogs can also improve mood and overall satisfaction with the hospital experience, creating a more positive environment for patients and healthcare providers alike.


Similarly, therapy dogs bring joy and companionship to elderly residents in nursing homes. Many elderly individuals may experience feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression, especially if they are separated from their families or have limited social interactions.



Therapy dogs provide unconditional love and affection, brightening the spirits of residents and fostering a sense of connection and belonging within the community. Interactions with therapy dogs can also stimulate memories, encourage socialization, and promote physical activity among elderly individuals, improving their overall quality of life.


In educational settings, therapy dogs offer valuable support to students of all ages. Research has shown that interactions with therapy dogs can reduce stress and anxiety levels among students, particularly during exam periods or times of academic pressure. Therapy dogs also provide a sense of comfort and security, helping students feel more relaxed and focused in the classroom.


Additionally, therapy dogs can assist in promoting social and emotional development among children, teaching valuable lessons about empathy, compassion, and responsible pet ownership.


The positive impacts of therapy dogs on mental and emotional well-being are supported by scientific research and real-life anecdotes. Studies have documented the physiological effects of interacting with therapy dogs, such as reduced heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels, indicating decreased stress and anxiety levels.


Furthermore, anecdotal evidence from individuals who have benefited from therapy dog programs consistently highlights the profound emotional support and comfort provided by these animals in times of need.


Factors to Consider When Choosing a Therapy Dog

Several factors should be taken into account to ensure that a therapy dog is well-suited for the role and capable of providing effective support and companionship to those in need.


One important factor to consider is the age of the dog. While puppies may be adorable and full of energy, adult dogs often make better candidates for therapy work due to their established temperament and behavior.


Unlike puppies, whose personalities are still developing and may change as they grow, adult dogs have already developed their disposition and are more predictable in terms of their behavior and temperament. This predictability allows handlers to assess whether a dog is suitable for therapy work based on its current characteristics, rather than relying on assumptions about how a puppy will mature.


The temperament of a dog is a critical consideration when selecting a therapy dog. Traits such as friendliness, obedience, and tolerance are essential for a successful therapy dog. A therapy dog should be naturally sociable and enjoy interacting with people of all ages and backgrounds.


Additionally, they should be obedient and responsive to commands, as they will need to follow instructions from their handler during therapy sessions. Furthermore, a therapy dog should be tolerant of physical contact and comfortable with being petted or hugged by strangers, as this is a common form of interaction in therapy settings.


Assessing a dog's temperament through temperament testing or observations of its behavior in different situations can help determine its suitability for therapy work.


While certain breeds are commonly associated with therapy work, such as Golden Retrievers and Labradors, it's essential to recognize that individual temperament matters more than breed stereotypes. While some breeds may have predispositions toward certain traits, such as gentleness or sociability, there are exceptions within every breed.


Therefore, it's essential to evaluate each dog individually based on its temperament, personality, and behavior rather than relying solely on breed characteristics. Additionally, mixed-breed dogs - such as Doodles - can also make excellent therapy dogs, as their genetic makeup may result in a unique combination of desirable traits for therapy work.


Socialization plays a crucial role in preparing a dog for this type of work. Early and ongoing socialization exposes dogs to a variety of environments, people, and experiences, helping them become comfortable and confident in different situations. Proper socialization teaches dogs how to interact politely with strangers, handle novel stimuli, and remain calm in challenging or unfamiliar environments.


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Additionally, socialization helps prevent fear or anxiety-related behaviors that may interfere with a dog's ability to perform effectively as a therapy dog. Handlers should prioritize socializing potential therapy dogs from a young age to ensure they develop the necessary social skills and confidence to thrive in their role.



Where to Find a Therapy Dog

There are several options available to prospective owners of therapy dogs, each with their advantages and considerations. Here are some common avenues for finding a therapy dog:


Shelters and Rescue Organizations

One of the most fulfilling ways to find a therapy dog is by adopting him or her from an animal shelter or rescue organization. These establishments often have a diverse array of dogs in need of loving homes, including many with the potential to become excellent therapy dogs.


By adopting from a shelter or rescue group, prospective owners not only provide a second chance to a dog in need but also have the opportunity to find a loyal companion with a heart of gold. Additionally, many shelters and rescues conduct behavioral assessments and temperament testing to help match dogs with suitable adopters, making it easier to find a dog with the qualities desired for therapy work.


Professional Breeders

Another option for acquiring a therapy dog is to purchase one from a reputable breeder. While this option may involve higher upfront costs compared to adoption, it can provide prospective owners with more predictability regarding the dog's breed, lineage, and health history.


When choosing a dog from a breeder, prospective owners should seek out breeders who prioritize health, temperament, and socialization in their breeding program. It's essential to communicate your intentions of using the dog for therapy work and seek guidance on selecting a puppy with the temperament and disposition suited for the role.


Retired Show Dogs

Adopting retired show dogs can be another viable option for finding a therapy dog. These dogs may possess the temperament, training, and social skills required for therapy work, as they have often been extensively socialized and trained from a young age to interact with people and handle various environments.


Additionally, retired show dogs may already have experience participating in public events and engaging with strangers, which can be beneficial in therapy settings. Prospective owners interested in adopting retired show dogs can inquire with reputable breeders or breed-specific rescue organizations that specialize in rehoming retired show dogs.


Therapy Dog Organizations

Some organizations specialize in breeding, training, and placing therapy dogs with individuals or facilities in need. These organizations may have specific programs designed to match therapy dogs with suitable handlers or settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, or schools.


Working with a therapy dog organization can provide prospective owners with guidance, support, and resources throughout the process of finding and training a therapy dog. Additionally, these organizations may offer certification programs or assistance with the registration process, ensuring that therapy dogs and their handlers meet the necessary requirements for therapy work.


Regardless of the source, prospective owners need to conduct thorough research and consider their specific needs and preferences when choosing a therapy dog. 


Therapy dogs are more than just furry companions - they are invaluable assets in providing emotional support and comfort to individuals in need. From their calm demeanor to their sociable nature and adaptability, therapy dogs possess a unique set of traits that make them well-suited for their role. 


We’re always here to help if you have questions. But others can help you begin this journey. If you’re not sure where to start, reach out to organizations like Therapy Dogs International (TDI):, Pet Partners, Love on a Leash, or Alliance of Therapy Dogs.


Through the power of animal-assisted therapy, therapy dogs continue to make a difference in the lives of countless individuals, bringing joy, comfort, and healing wherever they go.


Jenna and the JLDD Team


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