SEMO Regional K9 Search Team
Therapy Dogs

A therapy dog is a dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, people with learning difficulties, and stressful situations, such as disaster areas.

Therapy dogs come in all sizes and breeds. The most important characteristic of a therapy dog is its temperament. A good therapy dog must be friendly, patient, confident, gentle, and at ease in all situations. Therapy dogs must enjoy human contact and be content to be petted and handled, sometimes clumsily.

A therapy dog's primary job is to allow unfamiliar people to make physical contact with it and to enjoy that contact. Children in particular enjoy hugging animals; adults usually enjoy simply petting the dog. The dog might need to be lifted onto, or climb onto, an individual's lap or bed and sit or lie comfortably there. Many dogs contribute to the visiting experience by performing small tricks for their audience or by playing carefully structured games. In hospice environments, therapy dogs can play a role in palliative care by reducing death anxiety.

Therapy Dog Duchess

Our Therapy Dog Duchess was recently evaluated and certified by the good folks at Pet Pals, of the Humane Society of Southeast Missouri in Cape Girardeau.

Since that evaluation and certification, Dutchess and her handler have been on over 15 visits, including the Veterans Home and nursing homes, in both Scott and Cape Girardeau counties on behalf of Pet Pals, and to several schools as far away as Pevely in Jefferson County, MO.

We believe Duchess has found her calling in life, and while she is likely to undergo some advanced training in other Search and Rescue tasks, she has taken to being a Therapy Dog naturally, and seems to enjoy it as much as those she visits.

We will constantly expand her visits with Pet Pals, and on our own, developing our own places to visit.

The Science Behind Therapy Dogs

Amanda Fiegl

National Geographic News

Published December 21, 2012

One boy confided in the gentle-faced golden retriever about exactly what happened in his classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School that day—which his parents said was more than he'd been able to share with them. A little girl who hadn't spoken since the shootings finally started talking to her mother again after petting one of the "comfort dogs." Groups of teenagers began to open up and discuss their fear and grief with each other as they sat on the floor together, all stroking the same animal.

The dogs are therapy dogs—professional comforters that were brought to Newtown, Connecticut, almost immediately after the horrific shootings on December 14 that left 20 young children and 6 staff members dead.

Tim Hetzner, leader of the Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K9 Comfort Dogs team, traveled to Newtown with nine specially trained golden retrievers and their volunteer handlers from the Addison, Illinois-based group.

Using a local Lutheran church as their base, the K9 teams have spent the past few days visiting schools, churches, activity centers, and private homes in the community. They only go where they're invited and are careful to let people approach the dogs instead of vice versa, in case anyone is afraid of or allergic to the animals.

Counselors With Fur

The response to the dogs has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Hetzner.

"A lot of times, kids talk directly to the dog," he said. "They're kind of like counselors with fur. They have excellent listening skills, and they demonstrate unconditional love. They don't judge you or talk back."

The dogs are also used to reassure victims of natural disasters—most recently, Superstorm Sandy—and to brighten the days of nursing home patients. Hetzner said he got the idea after seeing how well students responded to therapy dogs in the wake of a 2008 school shooting at Northern Illinois University. Now, in addition to the core of 15 that make up LCC's K9 Comfort Dogs team, the group has deployed about 20 other dogs to be based in schools and churches that apply for them.

The human volunteers' main job is to make sure the dogs don't get burned out, which means taking a break to play ball or nap after about two hours of work. Although some handlers have a background in counseling or pastoral care, "the biggest part of their training is just learning to be quiet," Hetzner said.

"I think that's a common mistake people make in crisis situations—feeling obligated to give some sort of answer or advice, when really, those who are hurting just need to express themselves."

The Human-Canine Bond

Why does petting a dog make us feel better? It's not just because they're cute, says Brian Hare, director of Duke University's Canine Cognition Center.

The human-canine bond goes back thousands of years. Dogs descend from wolves and have been attracted to humans ever since we began living in settlements—a source of tasty garbage. That created an advantage for wolves to live near humans, and since it tended to be the less aggressive wolves that could do this more effectively, they essentially self-domesticated over time, according to Hare.

(Read more about the evolutionary history of dogs in the February 2012 National Geographic magazine cover story, "How To Build a Dog.")

Part of what makes dogs special is that they are one of the only species that does not generally exhibit xenophobia, meaning fear of strangers, says Hare.

"We've done research on this, and what we've found is that not only are most dogs totally not xenophobic, they're actually xenophilic—they love strangers!" Hare said. "That's one way in which you could say dogs are 'better' than people. We're not always that welcoming."

People also benefit from interacting with canines. Simply petting a dog can decrease levels of stress hormones, regulate breathing, and lower blood pressure. Research also has shown that petting releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and affection, in both the dog and the human.

Do Dogs Have Empathy?

In situations like the Newtown shootings, it makes a lot of sense that dogs would be an effective form of comfort, says psychologist Debbie Custance of Goldsmiths College, University of London.

"Dogs are social creatures that respond to us quite sensitively, and they seem to respond to our emotions," she said.

Custance recently led a study to see whether dogs demonstrated empathy. She asked volunteers to either pretend to cry, or just "hum in a weird way." Would the dogs notice the difference?

"The response was extraordinary," she said. Nearly all of the dogs came over to nuzzle or lick the crying person, whether it was the owner or a stranger, while they paid little attention when people were merely humming.

"We're not saying this is definitive evidence that dogs have empathy—but I can certainly understand why people would think they do, at least," Custance said.

Other animals can also be useful in what's known as "animal-assisted therapy." The national organization Pet Partners has 11,000 registered teams of volunteer handlers and animals that visit nursing homes, hospitals, schools, and victims of tragedy and disaster. Although most of the teams use dogs, some involve horses, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, and even barnyard animals like pigs and chickens.

The presence of an animal can help facilitate a discussion with human counselors or simply provide wordless emotional release, said Rachel Wright, director of Pet Partners' therapy animal program. The group plans to deploy several teams of therapy dogs to Newtown in the near future, working closely with agencies that are already present in the community, she said.

To some, the idea of sending a dog to a grieving person might seem too simplistic. But Custance says that very simplicity is part of what makes the connection between humans and canines so powerful.

"When humans show us affection, it's quite a complicated thing that involves expectations and judgments," she said. "But with a dog, it's a very uncomplicated, nonchallenging interaction with no consequences. And if you've been through a hard time, it's lovely to have that."

History of the therapy dog

During World War II, under combat operations against Japanese forces on the island of New Guinea, Corporal William Wynne came into possession of a young adult Yorkshire Terrier abandoned on the battlefield. He named the female dog Smoky.

Smoky accompanied Wynne on numerous combat missions, provided comfort and entertainment for troops, and even assisted the Signal Corps in running a telegraph cable through an underground pipe, completing in minutes what might have been a dangerous, three-day construction job which would have exposed men and equipment to enemy bombers.

Smoky's service as a therapy dog began when Corporal Wynne was hospitalized for a jungle disease. As Wynne recovered, Wynne's Army pals brought Smoky to the hospital for a visit and to cheer the soldier up. Smoky immediately became a hit with the other wounded soldiers. Dr. Charles Mayo, of the famed Mayo Clinic, was the commanding officer who allowed Smoky to go on rounds and also permitted her to sleep with Wynne in his hospital bed for five nights. Smoky’s work as a therapy dog continued for 12 years, during and after World War II.

The establishment of a systematic approach to the use of therapy dogs is attributed to Elaine Smith, an American who worked as a registered nurse for a time in England. Smith noticed how well patients responded to visits by a certain chaplain and his canine companion, a Golden Retriever. Upon returning to the United States in 1976, Smith started a program for training dogs to visit institutions. Over the years other health care professionals have noticed the therapeutic effect of animal companionship, such as relieving stress, lowering blood pressure, and raising spirits, and the demand for therapy dogs continues to grow. In recent years, therapy dogs have been enlisted to help children overcome speech and emotional disorders.


In 1982, Nancy Stanley founded Tender Loving Zoo (TLZ), a nonprofit organization that introduced animal therapy to severely handicapped children and to convalescent hospitals for the elderly. She got the idea while working at the Los Angeles Zoo, where she noticed how handicapped visitors responded eagerly to animals. She researched the beneficial effects that animals can have on patients and soon thereafter, Ms. Stanley began taking her pet miniature poodle, Freeway, to the Revere Developmental Center for the severely handicapped.

How to Earn the Title:



To earn the AKC Therapy Dog™ title, you and your dog must meet the following criteria:

  1. Certified/registered by an AKC recognized therapy dog organization.
  2. Perform a minimum of 50 visits.
  3. The dog must be registered or listed with AKC.

All dogs are eligible to earn the AKC Therapy Dog title, including purebreds and mixed breeds. To earn the AKC Therapy Dog title, dogs must be registered or listed with AKC and have a number in order to earn a title. This includes any one of these three options:

  1. AKC registration number – used by purebred dogs.
  2. Enrolled in AKC's PAL Program.
    • PAL is Purebred Alternative Listing. PAL (formerly called ILP) is a program that allows unregistered dogs of registerable breeds to compete in AKC Performance and Companion Events. PAL dogs include the many wonderful purebred dogs who may have come from shelters or rescue without AKC registration.
  3. Enrollment in AKC Canine Partners Program – used by mixed breed dogs.
    • A special Canine Partners enrollment form is available for mixed breed Therapy Dogs — AKC Therapy Dog Enrollment Application. This form must be submitted along with the Therapy Dog title application form.

The purpose of this program is to recognize AKC dogs and their owners who have given their time and helped people by volunteering as a therapy dog and owner team.AKC Therapy Dog™ program awards an official AKC title awarded to dogs who have worked to improve the lives of the people they have visited.

The AKC Therapy Dog title (THD) can be earned by dogs who have been certified by AKC recognized therapy dog organizations and have performed 50 or more community visits.

AKC does not certify therapy dogs; the certification and training is done by qualified therapy dog organizations. The certification organizations are the experts in this area and their efforts should be acknowledged and appreciated.

Why Did AKC Start A Therapy Dog Title?

AKC has received frequent, ongoing requests from dog owners who participate in therapy work to "acknowledge the great work our dogs are doing." Many of our constituents are understandably proud of their dogs.

Earning an AKC Therapy Dog title builds on the skills taught in the AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy® and Canine Good Citizen® programs which creates a sound and friendly temperament needed by a successful therapy dog.


Phase I

The dog must wear either a flat buckle or snap-in collar (non corrective) or a harness (non-corrective). All testing must be on a 6 ft. leash.*

*If the dog is on a longer leash, a knot must be made in the leash to mark 6 ft. The handler must drop the excessive leash.

Entry Table (Simulated as a Hospital Reception Desk)

Test #1: The dog/handler teams are lined up to be checked in (simulating a visit). 

The evaluator ("volunteer coordinator") will go down the line of registrants and greet each new arrival including each dog. At the same time the collars must be checked, as well as  nails, ears and grooming. 

This is to simulate the arrival at a facility where the coordinator first greets the visiting dog team and instructs the handler on proper grooming before a therapy dog visit.

The dogs must permit the evaluator to check the collar, all 4 paws, ears and tail which must be lifted if applicable

The dog must be friendly and outgoing upon meeting the evaluator, willing to visit without being invasive and show impeccable manners.

Pulling, lunging, jumping up (unruliness), shyness, aggressiveness, or resisting examination is an automatic failure.

Check-in and out of sight (between 2-3 minutes)

Test #2: The handler is asked to complete the paperwork and check in. At that time a helper will ask the handler if he/she can help by holding the dog. If the handler prefers he/she can go with the helper and places the dog with a stay command. The dog will be out of sight of the handler.  Another helper will take charge of the dog. The helper can talk to and pet the dog. The dog can sit, lie down, stand or walk around within the confine of the leash.

Whining, barking, pulling away from the helper is an automatic failure.

Getting around people

Test #3: As the dog/handler team walks toward the patients' rooms, there should be various people standing around. Some of the people will try visiting with the dog.  The dog/handler team must demonstrate that the dog can withstand the approach of several people at the same time and  is willing to visit and to walk around a group of people.

Walking around and through a group of people should be done randomly.

Pulling on the leash, jumping up, shyness, not wanting to visit, showing aggressiveness, not walking on a loose leash are an automatic failure.

Group sit/stay

Test #4: The evaluator will ask all the participants to line up with their dogs in a heel position (w/dog on left), with 8 ft. between each team. Now the handlers will put their dogs in a sit/stay position. The Evaluator will tell the handlers to leave their dogs. Handlers step out to the end of their 6 ft. leash and wait for the evaluator’s command to return to their dogs.

Group down/stay

Test #5:  Same as test number 4, except dogs will now be in a down/stay.

The dogs must stay in place as ordered.

These exercises will show how well the dog responds when other dogs are present.

Not staying in place, trying to visit with another dog are reasons for automatic failure. 

Recall on a 20 ft. leash

Test #6:  All handlers will be seated. Three dogs at a time will be fitted with a long line.  One handler at a time will take the dog to a designated area and downs the dog. Upon the command from the evaluator the handler will tell the dog to stay.  The handler will walk to the end of the 20 ft. line, turn around and upon a command from the evaluator will recall the dog.

For all practical purposes the recall is one of the most important obedience exercises for the dog to master.  If a dog does not come when called the dog is not obedient and cannot be trusted in public.

Not staying in place and coming when called is reason for automatic failure.

Visiting with a patient

Test #7: The dog should show willingness to visit a person and  demonstrate that it can be made readily accessible for petting (i.e. small dogs can be placed on a person's lap or can be held; medium and larger dogs can sit on a chair or stand close to the patient to be easily reached).

For this part of the test a wheelchair or bed can be used. The evaluator will supply a rubber bathmat and a towel.

Shyness, aggressiveness, jumping up, not wanting to visit are reasons for automatic failure.

Phase II

Testing of reactions to unusual situations

Test #8:  The dog handler team must be walking in a straight line.  The dog can be on either side, or slightly behind the handler, the leash must not be tight. The evaluator will ask the handler to have the dog sit (the handler may say sit). Next the evaluator will ask the handler to down the dog. Continuing in a straight line, the handler will be asked to make a right, left and an about turn at the evaluator's discretion.

The following distractions will be added to the heel on a loose leash.

a.    The team will be passing a person on crutches.

The dog must visit with the person on crutches.

b.    Someone running by calling "excuse me, excuse me"  waving hands (this person is running up from  behind the dog. It could also be a person on a bicycle or on roller blades).

The dog cannot be startled, can be curious, but not aggressive or shy.

c.     Another person should be walking by and drop something making a loud startling noise (a tin can filled with pebbles, or a clipboard). At an indoor test one could use a running vacuum cleaner (realistic in a facility).

The dog cannot be startled, it can be curious, but not aggressive or shy.

d.     After that, the team should be requested to make a left turn.

 To make it more realistic the left turn should be around some people.

 The people should be shuffling, moaning, coughing and also talking loudly.  

 Various health care devices should be used by the people (wheelchairs, crutches, (etc.)

 e.     And a right turn.

To make it more realistic the right turn should be around some people.

 Same scenario as (d)

f.     After the right turn an about-turn, going back in a straight line.

Exercises  "a - f"  show us how a dog will react under various circumstances which are day to day occurrences when the dog is out in public or while visiting at a facility.

The following scenarios can be staged as such:

As the dog handler team walks in a straight line, a person in a wheelchair, with a walker or crutches should be encountered by the dog handler team.  Each time the dog is required to visit.

These exercises give the Evaluator a good opportunity to observe the dog in various situations.  Do not pass the dog if the dog does not behave well in public.

Leave it; phase one

Test #9: The dog handler/team meets a person using a walker, the dog should approach the person and visit. The person with the walker will offer the dog a treat.

The handler must instruct the dog to leave it. 

The dog must ignore the food. The handler should explain to the patient why the dog cannot eat a treat while visiting (i.e. dog has food allergies).

Leave it; phase two

Test #10: The dog handler will resume walking in a straight line with the dog at heel.  There will be a piece of food in the path of  the dog.  The dog must leave it.

If the handler spots the food, a command of leave it can be given and the dog is not permitted to pick up the food. If the handler does not see the food and consequently does not give a command, he/she is not scouting adequately.  Regardless the dog is not permitted to pick up the food.

The Leave it exercise is a very important part of the test.  A dog who is food oriented will pick up food from the floor, the food might be potentially harmful to the dog (pills etc.)  Having a patient feed a dog can also cause a potential problem.  Some dogs are very grabby and might injure the patient.

Meeting another dog

Test #11: A volunteer with a demo dog will walk past the dog handler/team, turn around and ask the handler a question. After a brief conversation, the two handlers part.

The dog should not show any kind of negative reaction. The handler should not allow the dog to visit with the demo dog.

Entering through a door to visit at the facility

Test #12: The dog handler team is ready to enter a door to the facility. The handler first has to put the dog in a sit, stand or down stay, whichever is appropriate for the dog. If there is no door available, an area simulating an entrance should be marked.   A person should be able to go through the entrance before the dog/handler team.

This test will show us that the handler has control over the dog reinforcing that a responsible handler will yield to others.

Reaction to Children

Test #13 must be given last and only if the dog/handler team has passed all other segments of the test.

Test #13: The last phase of the test shows us if the dog will be able to work well around children.

The dog's behavior around children must be evaluated during testing.  It is important that during the testing  the potential Therapy Dog and the children are not in direct contact.  This means the dog can only be observed for a reaction toward children running, or being present at the testing site.  The evaluator must designate an area at least 10 feet away from the dog and handler.  The dog may be walked, or put in a sit or down position. The children will be instructed to run and yell and do what children usually do while playing.                                               

 Any negative reaction by the dog will result in automatic failure.  Negative reaction means a dog showing signs of  disobedience, aggression or avoidance (shyness).



Therapy Dogs are dogs who go with their owners to volunteer in settings such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes.

From working with a child who is learning to read  or providing encouragement to the sick or injured, to visiting a senior in assisted living, therapy dogs and their owners work together as a team to improve the lives of other people.


Therapy Dog Duchess and Friend at the 2013 Red Cross Christmas Party








Have Questions?

If you are in need of a Therapy Dog to provide comfort to someone, please feel free to contact us at 573-450-3221 to arrange a visit. We welcome your questions and queries. Please see our Contact Us page for complete contact information.