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What Makes a Good Therapy Dog?

Does your dog have the traits necessary to be one of the greats?

Key points

  • Therapy dogs volunteer with their guardian handlers in diverse healthcare, education, and other community settings.
  • Successful therapy dogs enjoy socializing with unfamiliar people, prioritize human companionship, and are reliably gentle and obedient.
  • Understand, cultivate, and respect your dog’s unique strengths and preferences.

Therapy dogs work in schools, airports, courtrooms, nursing homes, mental health clinics, and other community organizations. Depending on their role and training, they listen to young readers, distract anxious travelers, support crime victims during legal testimony, and facilitate comforting reminiscence from frail older adults about long-ago days.

They participate in physical or occupational therapy sessions to help patients improve their strength, task persistence, and motivation. In counseling offices, they join activities to help clients achieve their mental health goals.

The animals that complete these versatile tasks are as wide-ranging as their skillset, from the tiniest terrier to the massive Saint Bernard. Yet for all this magnificent diversity, the most successful therapy dogs have a few specific characteristics and traits in common that uniquely situate them for work as helpers in healthcare, education, and other community settings.

Traits of Successful Therapy Dogs

Centuries of domestication and selective breeding have cultivated particular qualities such as temperament, affiliativeness, biddability, and gentleness that ideally suit some dogs for animal-assisted activities. Obedience training shapes these characteristics, which are assessed through formal testing as part of the team registration process.

Temperament refers to inborn disposition. It is instinctive and innate, a biological inheritance that is not readily susceptible to change. It is also distinguishable from learned behavior.

For example, untrained puppies from herding breeds attempt to control the movements of others by circling, nipping, barking, or staring (Renna, 2012). This behavior represents a natural, inherent disposition that can be developed and refined through training. These traits are desirable for work in the field but are disadvantageous for therapy dogs, who are expected to demonstrate a relaxed and calm demeanor.

Affiliative dogs are socially confident and outgoing; they enjoy and solicit interaction with people beyond their immediate family. They’re unruffled in groups and are comfortable offering and receiving affection. They display eagerness and curiosity rather than reluctance or shyness when meeting new people. Affiliative dogs are at ease with themselves and others.

Biddable dogs thrive on loving relationships with their guardian handlers. They prioritize human companionship, accept and trust human leadership, and are motivated to work for the reward of treats, play, or praise. They also demonstrate an aptitude for learning new skills.

Some sporting breeds, such as Labrador and golden retrievers, are known to be exceptionally biddable; this explains their popularity as therapy, service, and emotional support animals.

Gentle dogs are consistently tolerant and patient. For example, they respond benignly to inadvertently rough touch, such as a well-intentioned but clumsy thump on the head or flank by a patient with poor physical coordination. Guardian handlers are responsible for safeguarding their dogs and quickly redirecting this behavior; gentle dogs trust their handlers for protection and physically withdraw from uncomfortable contact rather than reacting aggressively.

Obedient dogs cheerfully submit to their guardian handler’s leadership. They respond reliably to verbal instructions and may understand gestural commands as well.

Interestingly, research shows that dogs respond more reliably to gestures than verbal directions (D’Aniello et al., 2016). This finding supports the preference of handlers who train their dogs to respond to both voice and gestures or gestures alone.

Obedient dogs inhibit undesirable behaviors such as mouthing, barking, licking, nudging, or pawing. They trot in smooth alignment beside their handlers and ignore environmental distractions. They flawlessly follow instructions to sit, (lie) down, stay, come, leave it, give it, watch, and wait.

Capitalize on Strengths

If you’ve confirmed that your beloved canine is an ideal candidate for animal-assisted activities, congratulations! Now may be time to test and register with a therapy dog organization so you can start making visits.

On the other hand, maybe you’ve read this far and have begun to realize that your pup might not be suited for this kind of work. Perhaps he isn’t particularly affiliative; he adores you but is indifferent to others. Maybe he doesn’t like being touched by strangers, or he’s a contented homebody who gets carsick and anxious during travel. Perhaps he’s stressed and overwhelmed by unfamiliar sounds, rolling carts, crutches, slippery floors, or automatic doors.

Training and de-sensitization might eventually change some of these responses. However, as your dog’s advocate, it’s your job to ensure his well-being and respect his needs and preferences. Even if your dream is to participate in animal-assisted activities, you owe it to your pal to make sure it’s his idea of a good time, too.

Context matters when considering “ideal characteristics” and “traits of the greats.” Not every activity is suitable for every dog. The restless, athletic canine who paces impatiently at the hospice may have championship potential at lure coursing, and the placid pup who ambles through the children’s hospital would probably flunk an agility competition. Respect your best friend by helping him develop to his highest potential, whatever that might be, instead of squeezing him into the mold of what you’d like him to become.

In so many ways, our dogs are like ourselves: individuals with unique strengths, interests, and talents waiting to be discovered and fulfilled. Here’s hoping you and your pup find your bliss, doing whatever makes both of you wag with joy.


D’Aniello, B., Scandurra, A., Alterisio, A., Valsecchi, P., & Prato-Previde, E. (2016). The importance of gestural communication: A study of human–dog communication using incongruent information. Animal Cognition, 19(6), 1231–1235.

Renna, C. H. (2012). Herding dogs (2nd ed.). Fox Chapel Publishing.

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