If you and your dog both like people and enjoy volunteering, you might enjoy dog-assisted therapy work. Therapy dogs come from all walks of canine life, from the tiny to the tall, from stock dogs and hunting dogs to conformation champions to simply cherished companions. Whatever their other roles in life, therapy dogs share several essential qualities—they like people and are friendly, they're reliable in unusual environments, they take things in stride, and they enjoy being petted, smooched, hugged, and talked to by all sorts of people.
What exactly does a therapy dog do? Sometimes he just sits or lies quietly, being petted and listening to story after story about a nursing home resident's former dogs. Sometimes he visits elementary schools to help teach children about humane care of animals. He may work with disabled children. He may volunteer at a hospital, where he might visit patients in pediatrics, oncology, and other wards, including hospice centers. At least one hospital has found that having a therapy dog in the emergency room has a calming effect on patients and on doctors, nurses, and staff members working in the high-stress environment.
Therapy dogs should not be confused with service dogs, who work as guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf, seizure-alert dogs, general assistance dogs, and so on. Service dogs go through intensive training in order to perform their jobs. Therapy dogs don't require intensive training, but they must have basic obedience training and be reliable. They can't jump on people or onto beds uninvited, or ever put their mouths on people. Most therapy dogs also know commands such as Paws On (put your paws up on a bed or chair) and Paws Off (put your paws back on the floor). Some also know a few people-pleasing tricks.
Several organizations test and certify therapy dogs. You can make therapy visits to many places without being certified, but there are advantages to making your dog “official.” Certification gives your dog and you more credibility and some independent assurance that your dog has the temperament and training needed to make him a good therapy dog. In addition, most certifying organizations provide insurance to cover any accidental damage your dog might cause during official therapy visits. Each organization has rules designed to make therapy visits safe, comfortable, and enjoyable for everyone—residents, patients, staff, and the volunteer handler and dog.
Many dog-and-handler teams work alone or with one or two other teams. Recreation directors in nursing homes and other facilities are often delighted to make space on the calendar for therapy dog visits, so it's usually fairly easy to find a “workplace” close to home. If you'd rather not go it alone, look for a local therapy group. Many obedience and kennel clubs have therapy groups that visit nursing homes, hospitals, and schools. Some hospitals and nursing homes have their own programs and usually welcome new volunteers.