By Eileen Calvert

Are therapy dogs born or made?

PAWS 4 U is a non-profit organisation that uses volunteer handler and dog teams to visit facilities such as hospitals, oncology units, frail care, special needs schools, and Alzheimer’s patients.

Therapy dog is a general term often used to describe a dog that’s used to benefit people/children in a therapeutical way, either in a visiting or structured programme. AAA stands for Animal Assisted Activities and AAT for Animal Assisted Therapy.


Are therapy dogs born or made? Therapy dogs have been recognised for their healing abilities – providing the happy hormone dopamine and the feel-good anti-anxiety/depression hormone serotonin. Dogs can also help lower blood pressure and cholesterol. So, the answer is a bit of both. Certain breeds have a predisposition to being therapy dogs, for example, Golden Retrievers and Labradors, but that being said, we have all breeds and sizes of PAWS 4 U therapy dogs. So much is about the handlers’ input. A mixture of several factors also forms a part – personality, training, calmness, and socialising, for example.

Both male and female dogs are equally suited. Some programmes prefer to work with a certain size of dog, and one has to keep in mind that unspayed bitches have hormonal changes before and after a season, so they could be out of a structured programme for a couple of months.


A good therapy dog is one that has an excellent temperament. A dog that enjoys human contact outside of just the family home and is open to interacting with strangers. The dog shouldn’t be sensitive to rough or clumsy petting, and is friendly and enjoys being touched, petted, and brushed. A therapy dog doesn’t display toy or food aggression/guarded behaviour and should be calm, tolerant of sights, smells, and medical settings. They need to be social with other dogs, as we work in teams and often space can be limited.


A PAWS 4 U Therapy Dog is expected to walk calmly on a lead and be responsive to commands. He or she should be able to focus on a task, sit patiently while being petted, and walk through crowds and past wheelchairs and trolleys. A therapy dog will be non-reactive to crutches, walking sticks, and even tea trolleys. An evaluator will approach you to touch your dog and will do a “vet check” – teeth, ears, paws, and tail – to ascertain if your dog is comfortable. Often, the public won’t ask to touch your dog but will immediately have hands on and over your dog. A supervised separation test will be done in which the handler will have to do a two-minute out of sight and the dog will wait calmly and quietly for the handler to return. Aside from other handler skill tests, the handler needs to be aware of their dog’s body language before, during or after a visit. A bond between handler and dog needs to be clear and handlers at all times are to be alert to their dog’s needs – is he or she too hot, tired, thirsty?

So, how do you train your dog to become a therapy dog? Socialising is a big part of preparing a therapy dog for its role in public life. It’s important to expose your dog to stairs, noises, different surfaces, different people, and objects such as umbrellas and mobility aids. A good dog school that offers positive reinforcement training is a great place to start. Keep in mind that any dog that’s had “man work/bite work” cannot be assessed as a PAWS 4 U therapy dog.

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