Not Every Dog Can be a Therapy Dog


Gibson at 8 weeks of age on June 13, 2003. His first visit to a nursing home to visit my Mother, Shirley Lyle.

“I want my dog to be a therapy dog!”  That’s the comment we hear in many phone calls to Cold Nose College.  The truth is, though many people would like to do therapy work with their dogs, it takes much more than desire to make your wish come true.

I never meant to become involved with Therapy Dogs.  My journey evolved over time because my mother entered a nursing home about the time we brought home a new puppy.  But with our new pup, Gibson, in my arms, I made my first visit with him to a nursing home when he was 8 weeks of age.  I wasn’t a dog trainer then either, though I was on the cusp of beginning my first dog trainer instructor academy.  And  back then I wasn’t fully aware the skills, training and experience both a dog and human Therapy Dog Team need to be successful.

There are many types of therapy dogs.  ­­Most people in our local community are probably most familiar with therapy dogs who work in nursing homes or retirement communities giving residents a hearty dose of joy when the therapy team arrives for a visit.  Therapy dogs visit people who are incapacitated or prevented in some way from having freedom of movement.  Therapy dogs also provide cheer and entertainment for the ill and injured in hospitals and they assist those recovering from surgeries by aiding rehabilitation in physical therapy offices or settings.

While a registered therapy dog team can go into any number of facilities, the team must have prior approval from the specific facility they plan to visit and the team is covered with liability insurance by the therapy dog organization who certified their skills. A therapy dog is not to be confused with a service dog who actually provides a “service” to a person with exceptionality (seeing eye dog for the blind, seizure alert dog, etc.).  Therapy dogs cannot travel with you on airplanes and are not allowed in restaurants.  In order to perform safely and comfortably in a variety of settings, a therapy dog should be friendly, patient, confident, gentle and at ease in all situations.  The dog must enjoy human contact and be content to be petted and handled, oftentimes clumsily.

Gibson years later on August 19, 2011 bringing joy to an Alzheimer’s patient. Little did I know this would be his last therapy dog work.

It’s up to us to help our dogs discover what they’re best at.  With that new puppy of mine in 2003, I had hoped to do competition agility.  It ended up that Gibson didn’t have the drive for it, but he turned out to be the most patient and wonderful therapy dog.  It was with great sadness that I placed his registered therapy dog tag in my drawer when he died unexpectedly in October of 2011.

With my new girl, Willow, I had hoped to continue down the path of therapy work; however, she’s proving to be a dog more suited for competitive canine sports.  Maybe one day, some years from now, we’ll be a therapy dog team.  For now, I’m happy helping her be the best she can be at the things she truly enjoys.


Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a Pat Miller Certified Trainer-Level 2, a dog*tec Professional Dog Walking Academy Instructor, and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina.  She enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities for dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S.


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