How Do You Train a Therapy Animal?

“Ask yourself, does your animal genuinely love to be loved?” says Tina Mitchell, a coordinator of volunteers for the animal-assisted therapy program at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (S.P.C.A.). Mitchell and her colleagues train and certify dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs and horses to comfort strangers in hospitals, nursing homes, senior centers, psychiatric facilities, schools and airports. Graduates of the program include Alex the Great, a 28-pound Flemish Giant rabbit, and a miniature pig named LiLou.

To be a therapy animal, your pet needs to first master basic manners, including control of bodily functions and adherence to “sit,” “stay” and “leave it” commands (rabbits and cats are exempt from this requirement). To assess candidates, Mitchell and her colleagues start by handling and hugging the animals, touching their feet and paws while looking for signs of unease. If an animal shows any signs of fear when surrounded by unknown people wanting to touch them, they’re probably ill suited for the job. Your pet should remain unfazed by wheelchairs, walkers, canes, loud noises, small children and other animals. Never force the role of therapist on a shy animal.

Volunteers often bring their pets into the S.P.C.A. to be certified because they’ve noticed the calming effect the creature seems to have out in the world. Research shows that animals confer all kinds of physical and emotional benefits on humans. In a recent clinical trial of emergency-room patients at the Royal University Hospital in Saskatchewan, participants who received a 10-minute visit from a therapy dog reported small but statistically significant decreases in pain, as well as lowered anxiety and depression symptoms.

An animal wearing a vest that reads “Pet me!” might be touched by hundreds of people during a 90-minute session at San Francisco International Airport. Always look for signs of exhaustion and make sure to provide adequate restroom breaks. Keep your animal on a leash or a harness. Remember that you are not the main attraction; you’re there to facilitate a safe and inviting space for one species to soothe another. Don’t initiate an interaction, even if you spot someone who appears perturbed and in need of soothing. Instead, let the person see your animal and approach only if he or she is drawn to it. “Some people may just not like animals,” Mitchell says. “And that’s OK.”