herapy dogs are dogs who go with their owners to volunteer in settings such as schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. From working with a child who is learning to read to visiting a senior in assisted living, therapy dogs and their owners work together as a team to improve the lives of other people.

The use of canines to help mankind is known throughout the world. They have been used for guarding flocks, tracking, hunting, search and rescue, leading the blind, and in assisting the deaf and physically challenged. The bond between dog and man dates back to early history, but it wasn’t until recently that a correlation was acknowledged between this bond and the emotional health of humans. Studies have shown that a person holding or petting an animal will cause a lowering of blood pressure, the release of strain and tension, and can draw out a person from loneliness and depression.

Canine Therapy is now recognized to help wounded Warriors reconnect with life, their families, their communities, and each other. One of the most popular therapists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center prefers to show his enthusiasm and appreciation by wagging his tail and giving slobbery kisses. For more about the canines at Walter Reed please visit:

A short story about how it’s done!

By Martha Boteler
While I was aware that dogs were being used in many areas as therapy dogs, it wasn’t until I attended a therapy dog demonstration at a state school board conference that I realized what an opportunity there was for me to continue my love for teaching children. In our retirement my husband Joe and I perform rewarding volunteer services in local nursing homes and at the Veterans hospital, but this would give us the opportunity to include our pets.

The demonstration was with a younger dog and so I geared my thinking to starting fresh with a new dog. We have plans for a litter down the road, but I wanted to start my work as soon as possible. There is a requirement that the dog be at least a year old and live with you for at least 6 months. The search for a dog began. I knew I wanted to use a German Shorthair because it was important that I continue to showcase the breed. I contacted dog show friends for a pet quality dog to train in therapy work. However after I shadowed 2 certified dog and handler teams in a hospital and a school, I realized that our 9 year old champion German Shorthair male, that we had bred and trained, was a perfect fit for what I had in mind. Buck was well socialized from dog shows, calm, and knew basic obedience. We just needed to get him out and freshen up his training.

The online research led us to the website: The information is thorough and takes you through every step of how you and your dog become certified. You are required to take a training course, either with a local group or online. Much of the training concerns how you deal with the facility you’ll be visiting. There is also an emphasis on the privacy required when dealing with individuals. One area that was thought provoking was, “how does your pet handle stress and how do you recognize when your animal is in a stressful situation?” They even carry it further and ask what you do to relieve the stress and when it is wise to remove the animal from the situation.

“YAYABA” – You are you animal’s best advocate becomes your theme. The owner’s primary job is to present their pet in the best circumstances so they can make contact with the people. You are the support player in this scenario. So Buck and I began training with becoming comfortable with distractions such as: wheelchairs, people with crutches, large noisy groups of people, and Buck giving attention only to my commands. Buck and I worked in pet stores, in front of grocery stores, in ball parks with lots of people. We even worked at a boarding kennel with lots of barking as well as lots of smells. The local novice obedience class gave us even more exposure to other dogs and people in addition to practicing sits, downs, basic heeling, recalls, and “bear hugs” from strangers – all exercises that are clearly spelled out in the website. Always keep in mind your dog collar MUST be clipped to a leash and your hand MUST always be holding the leash. During the testing, there are “helpers” role playing scenarios such as loud groups of people wanting to pet your dog. Scoring on the test reflects not only how you handle your dog, but how you handle people around your dog. Once again, always keep in mind “you are your animal’s best advocate”. All of the requirements are clearly listed on the website, as well as how you are graded, and places you and your dog can be tested for certification. Although there were groups closer to do the testing, I was so impatient I traveled to Rome, Georgia, because they had the earliest test scheduled. Compassionate Paws is the local organization there that coordinates therapy activities. They are a great group of volunteers and were extremely kind and helpful to me.

We were both being tested with the same dog so there was a 2 hour interval required between tests to allow Buck to rest. I tested first and went through with no difficulty. The evaluator reviewed my results and I passed with flying colors. The certification Buck and I received is called “COMPLEX”. This is the highest rating available from Pet Partners. We are qualified to be used in schools, hospitals, locked facilities, and can be used in disasters. After the delay, Joe took Buck through the test. As a team they did not perform as well as I did on this. As I heeled through a busy crowd of “helpers” wanting to pet my dog, some in wheelchairs, some on crutches, not only did I maintain control of Buck, I engaged in conversation, reminding them how to approach a dog. During this exercise Joe reverted back to his AKC obedience work and was concentrating on Buck’s heeling. His attention was focused only on Buck’s behavior, and was not mindful of the people. Remember the handler’s primary function is to promote their dog. Joe and Buck received the certification “PREDICTABLE” which excludes locked facilities and disasters.

In researching and speaking with educators, children with lower scores in reading improve when reading to a therapy dog. I observed a child’s confidence boosted just in being in the presence of a therapy dog for a 30 minute session. The dogs have a non-judgmental, calming effect on the children. While my emphasis will be in the schools, there are many opportunities available for our dogs. When I shadowed a therapy dog in a pediatric ward of a local hospital, the smiles were amazing, something I’ll never forget. Many times we find hidden opportunities, walking on campus at the university during finals week students are drawn to the dogs because they are reminded of their pets back home. Just the act of petting the dog and talking to them is a great stress reliever for a lonesome kid.

What an adventure and dream come true! We’ll make visits to nursing homes over the summer. And in September Buck and I will be in a Tuscaloosa, Alabama county school as a reading partner and being an encourager to a child needing a smile. If I can answer questions you may email me: mboteler@

For more information from AKC on Therapy dogs please visit: