What Makes an Animal (and Handler) Suitable to be a Therapy Animal Team?

Intermountain Therapy Animals looks for very specific qualities in the companion animals it registers as therapy animals. Pet owners who are considering becoming an animal-assisted therapy handler with their animal should keep the following in mind:

What Kinds of Animals Will Qualify?

Besides dogs and cats, there are a great many other species that make wonderful visiting animals and can form strong human-animal bonds. To name just a few: birds, rabbits, goats, domestic rats, hamsters, guinea pigs, ducks and chickens, goats, miniature pigs, llamas, cows and horses.

At this time, Intermountain Therapy Animals does not work with large animals like llamas, cows and horses. Also, animals such as snakes, ferrets, lizards and wild or exotic animals are not registered. Wild or exotic animals are not legally acceptable as pets in many states, and generally have minimal interest in relating with humans. Also, without more research documenting their predictability over time, we cannot accurately evaluate their behavior, their reaction to stress, and whether there would be health risks for either the animals or the humans they meet.

What Makes an Animal Appropriate?

Animals should have at least a basic level of training so that they are reliable and manageable even in crowded situations and when there are loud noises. Therapy animals should be well-behaved and have good manners.

Because we love our animals, it is important that animals who participate in AAA/AAT have an interest in people and enjoy visiting. Look at the following checklist about what makes an animal appropriate for AAA/AAT.

  • Animal demonstrates behavior that is reliable, manageable, predictable, and inspires confidence in the person s/he is interacting with
  • Animal actively solicits interactions with people and is accepting and forgiving of differences in people’s reactions and behavior
  • Animal demonstrates relaxed body posture, moments of sustained eye contact (dependent upon species and breed), and relaxed facial expressions
  • Animal is more people-oriented than animal-oriented
  • Animal enjoys being petted, touched and handled, even by strangers
  • Animal is able to remain calm with people doing such things as speaking loudly, clumsy movements and clapping
  • When approached from the rear, the animal may show curiosity, but does not startle, growl, jump up, bark, eliminate, act shy or resentful
  • The animal can walk on various surfaces reasonably comfortably, including carpet, concrete or asphalt, tile, linoleum, rubber matting and wooden floors
  • Animal can be held by another person than its owner for several minutes, continuing to demonstrate good manners with no vocalizing or extreme nervousness
  • Animal is outgoing, friendly and confident in new settings

What Kinds of Animals Definitely Will NOT Qualify?

  • Any pet that is aggressive to people or other animals would not be a suitable candidate. Growling, snapping, lunging, extended barking, raising of hackles, or baring of teeth will disqualify a dog. Sometimes we meet owners who tell us, when their dog starts to growl, that’s just talking, or that’s just his way to say hello. Even if that’s true, it doesn’t work to have an animal in school and hospital settings, with people who are sick and perhaps frightened or even tentative about meeting a dog, to have to recoil in fear.
  • If your pet is in poor health it would not be safe for it or the people s/he meets to be exposed. We visit with people who are very fragile medically, and therapy animals must be picture-perfect in both health and grooming.
  • If your animal is unpredictable (sweet one moment, aggressive the next) or doesn’t like being around people (shy, backs away, gets nervous, quivers, etc.) it would not be suitable.
  • We do not accept any dogs who are wolf hybrids, even though many are wonderful companions, again because they can be unpredictable.
  • We also do not accept dogs who already have a job as a service/assistance or emotional support animal. We feel that one major “job” for a dog is enough.
  • It is very important for your pet to live like a member of your family. Dogs who live most of their lives outdoors, especially if they sleep outside and/or are kept chained most of the time, do not make good therapy animals because they have not been able to establish strong bonds with their humans. Dogs who are well behaved, well socialized members of their pack are most successful as therapy dogs.

What, Specifically, Will You and Your Animal Have to Do During the Test?

Every organization has its own version of a test for a person and animal to become a volunteer therapy team, and requirements differ. But generally, the testing criteria relate to people, equipment and situations that you and your animal may encounter while visiting as a therapy team.

Here are some typical requirements:

  • A strong bond and relationship must be evident between you and your animal.
  • Both you and your animal must be clean, well-groomed and healthy.
  • Basic obedience cues are usually required, including sit, down, stay, come when called, and walking nicely with you on a relaxed leash.
  • Meeting another dog is usually required.
  • Animals must be accepting of friendly strangers, eager to interact, and reasonably calm and easy to manage and direct.
  • An animal will be handled all over his/her body, with some irregular stroking and sounds, as may be typical with some clients. A restraining hug is also typical.
  • If an animal displays any aggression or submissiveness, panic or excessive stress, these are indicators that a therapy job is probably something your animal will not enjoy.
  • Overall, most evaluators are looking for a bonded person and animal, with a dog being welcoming to strangers and not unduly stressed by the whole experience.
  • These test items are primarily for dogs. If you have some other animal, there will be some variation in the procedures to accommodate species differences.

Intermountain Therapy Animals accomplishes most of this list above as a role-play, with scenes and situations that are typical of many visits. We look carefully at the dog’s comfort and enjoyment, because we do not want to try to do good in the world if it means making our animal companions miserable. Our philosophy includes a strong commitment to the belief that trying to help others heal should never be done at the expense of our animal companions.

We at ITA also place considerable emphasis on a handler’s competence throughout the test; our test is definitely not an expanded version of a dog obedience test.

You may have questions after reading this information. Please feel free to contact us and ask for more detailed responses if you are unsure about what you have read above.

Thanks for your interest! Animal-assisted interactions are an idea whose time has come, and if you and your companion animal decide to join us in doing this work, you will have much joy ahead of you.