Finding and Preparing a Dog for Canine Assisted Play Therapy®

Posted by on Feb 14, 2021

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Another frequently asked question about Animal Assisted Play Therapy® pertains to finding the right canine partner and preparing the dog for the work. Most common are questions about which breeds make the best therapy dogs. These are actually more complex questions than many people realize. This blogpost is designed to point readers toward some helpful resources that we have developed.

Caveat Emptor

This phrase, translated loosely as “The buyer alone is responsible” or “Let the buyer beware,” applies when it comes to obtaining a dog for AAPT work. As exciting as it is to add a new puppy or rescue dog to one’s family, there are many pitfalls to be avoided. I have already written about one pitfall–people trying to sell “therapy dogs” with dubious backgrounds and credentials. This does not apply to all, of course, but the practice often leads to greatly inflated prices and dogs who are not suitable anyway. This article can be found here: “Therapy Dogs for Sale” — Can Therapy Dogs Be Purchased?”

If your goals are simply to purchase a puppy or to visit a shelter or rescue to adopt a dog, you can still end up with a dog who is not going to work as a therapy dog, despite some unscrupulous individuals telling you that the dog will be perfect. In some cases, breeders will select a dog for you “for therapy work” but they might not understand the nature of the therapy work you wish to do. People often have an image of a particular type of dog for therapy work, not realizing that there are different types of therapies, different types of activities, and different types of dogs needed for each. I usually recommend that therapists find an experienced and positive dog trainer or behaviorist to help them with selection and to work in advance to ensure that even those professionals understand what the work might look like for the dog. I generally advise against allowing someone else to select a dog for you, but having some experienced advice from trainers/behaviorists to go along with whatever the breeder says is a very good idea. This whole area of selecting the right dog for your family and work is covered in our inexpensive, self-paced online course, Selection of Dogs for Family Life and Therapy Work

This course includes lots of valuable information about acquiring dogs who have the potential to be therapy dogs. One of the key points is that a dog’s suitability depends not so much on his/her breed but on his/her personality and socialization.

Socialization and Relationship-Building

When you decide upon a dog, whether it is a puppy or a grown dog, socialization is the next critical consideration. Socialization, in essence, refers to the variety of activities one provides for the animal to live within human society as we typically expect dogs to do. There are important periods during puppyhood when socialization makes a big difference, but it is valuable to think of socialization as a lifelong process. Even adult dogs learn from their experiences, and helping a dog become comfortable in the work environment requires effort and know-how. One must ensure that all socialization experiences are positive for the dog lest they backfire and create or worsen anxiety in the animal.

Relationship-building starts the day you acquire a dog as well. It is part of the socialization process, but it reaches beyond that as you and your potential therapy dog get to know each other very well, develop a trusting and reciprocal relationship, and create a secure attachment. Relationship-building precedes involving the dog in therapy work and continues throughout the life of the dog.

In 2020, we held a series of 4 webinars that relate to both of these areas. The webinar topics were (a) Enhancing Our Human-Animal Skills (with Risë VanFleet), (b) Resilience (with Val Miraglia), (c) What Does ‘Choice’ Really Mean? (with Tracie Faa-Thompson) and (d) Socialization: Preparing Dogs & Beyond (with Jodi Smith). These 4 recorded webinars have been combined into an online course with details at this link: Human-Animal Relationships in AAPT: Special Topics  This online course is available for most therapist continuing education credits.

Beyond Canines?

While the resources listed here are primarily about dogs, some of the information and principles, especially the Human-Animal Relationships course, apply to other species as well. We hope to have resources specifically for selecting animals of other species in the future. We also discuss other species and things to attend to in our Level 1 AAPT workshops, and also in the award-winning book, Animal Assisted Play Therapy (VanFleet & Faa-Thompson, 2017).


*Animal Assisted Play Therapy is a trademark of the Family Enhancement & Play Therapy Center, Inc. (and its International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®).

Author Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC, CAEBC-I, co-creator of the field of Animal Assisted Play Therapy® with Tracie Faa-Thompson, is shown here with AAPT dog extraordinaire, Kirrie.

Article and photos © 2021, International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®. All rights reserved.