School Therapy Dogs

Are you an educator interested in incorporating a school therapy dog into your educational setting? This page will help you learn more about the growing field of school therapy dogs and related resources. It is important to note that the therapy dog industry is unregulated. You will need to do your due diligence to ensure that the choices you make consider safety, responsible dog training and dog handling, and program oversight.

Be sure to also explore the Animal Assisted Intervention page for more information about including therapy dogs in goal-oriented student activities.

Teacher standing in a classroom with a therapy dog looking at her

School Therapy Dog Models

There are 3 basic models when considering including therapy dogs in an education setting. CCH helps to prepare teams for the “Professional AAI Model” however you should be aware of the other options that may be readily available to you.

  • Visiting Support Model – a therapy dog team (dog and handler) comes to your school for basic interactions with students (goals may be to support animal awareness, improve student wellness, encourage positive school climate)
  • Visiting AAI Model – a therapy dog team (dog and handler) comes to your school on a prearranged schedule and works directly with an educator to implement specific goal oriented activities. (goals may include social-emotional, therapy, and academic oriented activities)
  • Professional AAI Model – The therapy dog team is made up of the handler who also delivers already established services in the school to students with their own trained therapy dog.
    • A growing trend is to include Professional School Therapy Dogs in special education, therapy, social work, counseling, and academic tutoring. The therapy dog accompanies the handler to their work site and spends extended periods of time in the school participating in interventions with students at the direction of the handler. This model is most successful when the educator undergoes specific training to learn dog handling methods, as well as learning to integrate Animal Assisted Intervention.

Frequently Asked Questions

There are several therapy dog organizations that have a list of volunteer teams that may be available to visit your school. See the most popular therapy dog registries listed in the resource section below. It’s important to know that each organization will have their own requirements for their teams and the receiving agency. The therapy dog industry is unregulated in the U.S. so its important to know how the teams are screened and their level of preparedness to work in an education setting.

There should be some type of qualifications for a therapy dog team. The terms “certified” or “registered” are completely up to the therapy dog organization as to how they define their teams. Some organizations require specific training, while others only require that the dog and handler pass a basic screening. Most therapy dog registries do not include dog training services. Canine Community Heroes is one of a few that offer a comprehensive program that includes dog training, handler preparation, and AAI development services. Since our organization documents the skills of each team we use the term “certified” to mean that the team has to pass specific competencies. Many organizations use the term “registered” to mean that teams are part of their own defined directory or list of members.

There are places that will “sell” a therapy dog. Since there are no standards for training or the definition of a “therapy dog”, its important to do your due diligence. Unfortunately scams are very prevalent. *Some basic requirements we recommend are the following.
1. A trained therapy dog should not be less than 1 year old.
2. A therapy dog should not be trained on choke, prong, or electronic shock/stimulation.
3. The individual or organization selling the dog should include a period of supplemental training that includes transitioning the dog to you as the handler.
4. There should be a record of where the dog was acquired, health history, and training history.
5. The seller should have personal references that you can contact who currently have a working therapy dog from the seller.
6. There should be a record, preferably video documentation, of the dog’s skills and temperament outside of the training environment.
7. There should be a contract for ongoing training support and what happens if the dog doesn’t work out.

*It is CCH’s opinion that since dogs are sentient beings, selling a dog for the purpose of work should only be done under conditions of high standards and humane considerations.

In the U.S., domestic and pet animals are considered property so we are addressing this question without bias to the term “owned”. It is our opinion that the school therapy dog should not be owned by the school district because of animal welfare considerations. Therapy dogs should have a single family living situation and cared for as a family member, not transferred or reassigned within the district even if the handler should leave the place of employment. If the school district wants to help financially support the dog’s needs, a contract can be made.

Most educational institutions will require that the therapy dog team have a specific amount of liability insurance. If the team belongs to a therapy dog registry, it is common that they will be covered under volunteer insurance. This means that the team is covered under the organization’s insurance policy as long as the handler is not receiving a paycheck from the place where they go to deliver therapy dog services. If you are taking your therapy dog to work with you then you will need a different type of insurance policy. CCH insurance covers its own certified professional therapy dogs that are working in the State of Colorado. The Association of Animal Assisted Intervention Professionals also has an insurance policy for its members who bring their dog to work with them. Other private insurance companies, such as The Business Insurers of the Carolinas, offer similar policies. Liability insurance policies are specifically to cover any damage or injury to people. It does not cover injury to your dog. We do not recommend home owner policies, as these are very limited and generally do not cover you and your dog in a work place scenario.

Since therapy dog teams are certified or registered together as a handler and dog unit, most organizations require that the handler be present and directly responsible for the therapy dog at all times. If you would like other educators in your building to include your dog in their lessons with students, we recommend setting up a schedule where you can bring your dog for participation in the activities with you present.

Each site should have a plan in place where individuals are able to learn or work without contact with the dog if that is in their best interest. We recommend having dedicated areas in the school where the dog does not go such as specific classrooms and the nurses office. We also encourage appropriate signage that lets everyone know when the therapy dog is present on site and who to contact if concerns arise.

Training and including your dog in your professional services in a school can take some creative time management and flexible scheduling. You will need to commit to attending dog training lessons, regular practice, and maintaining the working partnership throughout your dog’s working career. We do not recommend sending your dog away for several weeks to work with a trainer because of the risk of separation issues and the inability for you to monitor your dog’s reaction to the training program.

Selecting a Dog and Training Program:

Is your dog’s temperament and desires in line with a future as a therapy dog? The selection of a dog for training, whether it be a current dog or one you would like to adopt, should be done with the assistance of a dog trainer. Your dog may be a wonderful and confident companion at home, but it will take some extra considerations to see if your dog would really enjoy working with others in a complex working situation.

Is your school’s administration supportive of including a therapy dog in the school environment? It would be a shame if you put all that effort into training a therapy dog to only find out that your therapy dog is not permitted at work with you. Be sure to discuss your plans and provide supportive materials to your administrators ahead of time.

What should I look for in a therapy dog training program? Selecting a training program is the next biggest consideration. Therapy dog work requires that your dog have good social and relationship skills. You want to avoid programs that use punishment and/or teach your dog to only respond when a command is given. Therapy dogs should have good manners of course, but their job is to engage with people that allows for communication and emotional exchanges. A dog that is trained to just “obey” a set of commands is not adequately prepared for complex social encounters that are common in school settings. The training program should be inclusive of teaching you how to read and respond to your dog’s needs. An effective therapy dog team is able to work together in partnership. Positive, reward-based training is the best way to develop relationship skills because it considers the dog’s emotional state similar to your goals with students.

The training program should also include a component that supports you and your dog throughout the therapy dog team’s career. It is unlikely that your team will not encounter situations at work that occasionally need some trouble shooting or adaptations to the original training. Ongoing training support is imperative to your team’s success.

What if I can’t find a training program near me with all these training components? Its ok if you need to combine training services to achieve your dog training goals and ongoing support. Look for a positive reinforcement trainer and online services that support your needs. CCH is available for online consultations. Other areas of online support include the School Therapy Dogs website and Facebook group.

School Therapy Dog Resource Links