As science and research progresses, we are learning more and more about how dogs can provide those that need it with emotional support, stress reduction and improve our overall physical and mental well-being. We have therefore seen a great increase in people who want to train their dogs as service or therapy dogs, whether it is for their own support, or to provide support to others in need.

There are several different categories of service and therapy dogs and different requirements for each. If you want to train a therapy dog, your first step is deciding what type of service/therapy dog you want.

The difference between a "Service" dog and a "Therapy" dog

A therapy dog provides comfort and support to other people in a certain area, such as a school or hospital. Therapy dogs can be certified through independent organizations to give them legitimacy, but they do not have any legal rights to go into public buildings. Owners must get permission from the specific facilities to which they want to bring their dogs.

A certified assistance dog, on the other hand, has been certified by the provincial government as a personal medical aid due to a medically-recognized disability. As such, they are allowed to accompany their owners virtually everywhere they go.


Guide or Service Dogs

Guide and service dogs are taught tasks to mitigate the specific disability of their handler. Guide dogs help people with visual impairments while service dogs help people with other kinds of disabilities such as hearing impairments and epilepsy. They can help a person navigate through public areas, alert them to sounds, open doors and do other tasks.

British Columbia’s Guide Dog and Service Dog Act and regulation govern how guide and service dogs and their handlers are certified. Certification increases public safety, raises training standards and improves public access for dog and handler teams.

There are two ways to be certified:

1. Receive a trained dog from an accredited school

2. Pass a public safety test. For more information on Guide and Service dogs, follow this link to visit the BC Government Justice Department web page. 

Therapy Dogs

There are three main types of therapy dogs:

1. Personal Therapy Dog:  A personal therapy dog is a trained, evaluated and certified dog that helps its owner(s) that struggle with mental health conditions.

For personal therapy dog certification, you must have a letter from your current mental health professional that states why and how a therapy dog  benefits you. Depending on where you live, you may need to meet other specific requirements or pass specific tests.

2. Visiting Therapy Dogs: These are dogs that visit facilities, such as nursing homes, hospitals, daycares and schools to provide emotional support to those who need it. These visits may include having a child read to the dog to boost confidence, or just interacting with the residents providing comfort and joy through interaction and play. 

Requirements for visiting therapy dogs vary by facility, but most require up-to-date veterinary records.

3. Assisted Therapy Dogs: These dogs belong to teachers, psychologists, counselors, educators, and other similar professionals and join their owners at their place of employment to provide support and assistance to their clients, students and patients.

Again, requirements for assisted therapy dogs vary depending by facility,  but most require up-to-date veterinary records.

There are a variety of organizations that will help you certify your dog as a therapy dog, including St. John's Ambulance ServiceThe Lifeline Canada Foundation, as well as many others both locally and internationally. Depending on which organization you pursue it through, certification may involve classroom instruction, temperament tests, and providing documentation from your veterinarian.

If you plan to take your therapy dog to public facilities, such as nursing homes, schools, and the like, you will have to check with each facility to determine their requirements.

Regardless of what type of service or therapy dog you wish to have, your dog must have one main trait before you embark on training him or her - a fantastic temperament. These dogs should genuinely like being out and about, interacting with new people and show no aggression or reactivity to people, other dogs, or new environments. Not all dogs are suited to this type of work, so before you begin, be sure to ask yourself whether both you and your dog have the capability, drive and genuine passion for this type of work.

The Service Dog Training Institute in Nanaimo offers online classes and in-person coaching sessions to help owners train service and assistance dogs in the Nanaimo area.