Pet-Assisted Therapy  

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Now that you've chosen a Berner as your companion and wish to share its endearing personality with others, you're wondering about how to get started.  The good news is that most Berners can become wonderful therapy dogs with some proper handling and training in basic control skills.  Early socialization and obedience training will help to achieve this goal.  If you are fortunate enough to have a Berner that fits the criteria for a pet-assisted therapy dog, you will enrich the lives of others, yourself, and your Berner.

Prerequisites and Guidelines

There are a number of pet-assisted therapy organizations, and each has their own set of prerequisites and guidelines for any handler and dog entering their programs. You will need to check with the particular pet-assisted therapy organization concerning its requirements. Listed below are some of the general ones for the dog: 

                 must be at least one-year of age

                 must pass an annual physical examination, which may include a stool check

                 must have received all vaccinations (including Rabies and DHLPP or DALPP) as well as provide written documentation from a licensed veterinarian

                 must be free from internal and external parasites

                 must be clean and groomed, including trimmed nails

                 must have received an AKC Canine Good Citizen ("CGC") certificate as well as passed a temperament or screening test given by the pet-assisted therapy organization or its evaluator.  (In some organizations, this evaluation screening and/or CGC certificate can be required every other year.) 

In addition:

                 dog should be on a buckle or slip collar and attached to a leash (unless giving a demonstration)

                 female dogs while in season may not go on site visits

                 dog should be able to get along with other domestic animals as some visits can have multiple animals visiting the site at the same time 

The handler is also asked to keep patient, resident, or student confidentiality, be neat in appearance, and follow the instructions given by the pet-assisted therapy organization and/or the site facilitator. 


Since you've decided to try your Berner at pet-assisted therapy, you should start preparing the dog for the screening test, CGC and/or possible scenarios the Berner may encounter while on a site visit. You want a Berner that is social and likes to greet people.  You can start at any age with a Berner. 

The Berner should: 

                 allow someone to handle its feet, both front and back

                 allow its ears to be stroked

                 allow its mouth to be open

                 know the sit, down, and stay commands ("basic control" commands)

                 react to different stimuli in a calm manner; e.g., have someone go by with a shopping cart, a strange dog, a kid on a skateboard while your dog stays quietly at your side without pulling on the leash

                 walk comfortably on different types of surfaces

                 maintain proper etiquette during the site visit
(One of the more delightful characteristics of a Berner is the ability to approach an individual in a happy and bouncy manner, swing its body around just before reaching the individual, and plopping its hip down on that individual's foot.  While a Berner enthusiast might not object to this trait, it is not something you want the Berner doing in pet-assisted therapy visits.  For that reason, Berner puppies or those Berners who are slower to mature mentally may need to wait a bit longer before enrolling in a pet-assisted therapy temperament or evaluation screening.)

Even though most Berners can learn to differentiate between the pet-assisted therapy visit and other activities, it is always best to think ahead and anticipate what action your Berner is contemplating.  You should also be able to recognize when your Berner is showing signs of stress (e.g., panting, sweaty pads, the Berner withdrawing, etc.). 

Site Visits

It is hard to describe the experiences you and your Berner will have when going to a site.  Pet-assisted therapy dogs have been used to visit schools, special education programs, hospitals, retirement homes, psychiatric facilities, homeless shelters, and prisons.  In addition, if you are involved with a pet-assisted group belonging to a local humane society, you may be asked to bring your dogs to areas not typically visited (e.g., museums, bookstores, and companies). 

Rewarding Experiences

There are many stories told on the positive and beneficial experiences of pet-assisted therapy ‑ the autistic child who starts to verbalize, the elderly individual who waits for a particular dog because that dog reminds him of his family pet, the psychiatric patient who interacts first with the dog and then starts to communicate with the handler, a child who is afraid of dogs because of a prior bad experience and eventually comes around and starts to enjoy the simple pleasure of petting the dog.  Most importantly, the site visit should be fun for all the individual being visited, the Berner, and you.  Enjoy! 


Organizations With Pet-Assisted Therapy Programs: 

Delta Society

580 Naches Avenue SW Suite 101

Renton, WA  98055-2297
(425) 226-7357  


Therapy Dogs Incorporated
P.O. Box 5868
Cheyenne, WY 82003
(877) 843-7364 or (307) 432-0272  

Therapy Dog International, Inc.
88 Bartley Square

Flanders, NJ  07836
(973) 252-9800


 Recommended Reading: 

Therapy Dogs Teaching Your Dog to Reach Others, Kathy Diamond Davis (1992).

 Volunteering With Your Pet  How to Get Involved in Animal-Assisted Therapy With Any Kind of Pet, Mary R. Burch, Ph.D. (1996). 

Pets in Therapy, edited by Margaret N. Abdill & Dennis Jupp (1997). 

Love on a Leash, Liz Palika (1996).