How to Certify Your Dog as a Therapy, Search or Rescue Service Dog

A dog with a graduation cap on.
A dog with a graduation cap on. Photography ©al_louc | Thinkstock.

Did you ever think that your dog has a greater calling than just hanging out on your couch and chewing on a bone? Maybe his or her personality is one with drive or so patient, calm and sweet that you could imagine your dog as a therapy dog? Today there are so many ways you can get your dog certified to help or be of comfort to the humans in our community and beyond. And some certifications are good to have for other reasons, like finding housing and homeowners insurance. Here’s how to certify your dog as a service, therapy or rescue dog.

How to certify your dog as a therapy dog

As a certified therapy dog, Dagger has a variety of duties, such as visiting children at a library for the “Read to me Program.”
As a certified therapy dog, Dagger has a variety of duties, such as visiting children at a library for the “Read to me Program.” Photography courtesy Yvonne Dagger.

One of the most common certifications you may have heard of is therapy dog. Therapy dogs are dogs who went through testing to qualify to go into hospitals, schools and nursing and retirement homes. According to website: These pets have a special aptitude for interacting with members of the public and enjoy doing so. Therapy animal owners volunteer their time to visit with their animal in the community.

Therapy dogs should have friendly dispositions, love people, be patient, gentle, confident and comfortable in many different environments.

I spoke with Yvonne Dagger who has worked with the Northeast Chapter of Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), which provide service dogs to help people with many different daily functions who need assistance. Yvonne and her husband raised YaYa and Dagger, as “puppy raisers” and then both were put into the Advanced Training program at CCI for additional training. However not all dogs make it through the rigorous training to become a service animal. Yvonne adopted both incredible dogs who now do therapy work on a regular basis.

Both YaYa and Dagger are certified therapy dogs through Therapy Dogs International, (TDI) and provide therapy dog services on an average of three times a month.

“It was a difficult test,” Yvonne says. “TDI has extremely high standards. If your dog didn’t do what was required of him/her to do, you failed. One jump up or one bark was an immediate failure. There was no room for errors. No treats were allowed. You were only allowed to correct your dog once. They had food lures and temptations all over the place. They tested for how well your dog did around wheelchairs, a person on crutches and a person standing asking if your dog wanted a treat.” (It’s a no-no for a dog to take anything from someone other than the dog’s handler.)

Both YaYa and Dagger passed with flying colors, and they also both have their Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certification.

How to certify your dog as a Canine Good Citizen

A golden dog sleeping on a couch.
The AKC’s Canine Good Citizen program is another way to certify your dog. Photography ©Janie Airey | Thinkstock.

The American Kennel Club (AKC) offers Canine Good Citizen (CGC) testing, which is done by approved evaluators. A CGC certification is usually required before testing to become a therapy dog. Having your dog CGC certified, even if you don’t ever plan on doing therapy work, is a great thing to do because it shows off your dog’s good behavior. From the AKC website, the actual definition of the CGC is: “Responsible Owners, Well-Mannered Dogs.”

The AKC’s Canine Good Citizen program is recognized as the gold standard for dog behavior. In CGC, dogs who pass the 10-step CGC test can earn a certificate and/or the official AKC CGC title. Dogs with the CGC title have the suffix CGC after their names.

Having your dog tested and certified as a CGC dog is a great way to show how responsible you are — and could help you in a few ways, such as homeowners insurance or getting housing if you are renting. It won’t guarantee you insurance or that rental home or apartment, but it could potentially help. In other words, it is a great certification to have.

How to certify your dog as a search and rescue dog

Jager has been training for two years to become a live find SAR dog focused in wilderness. Dogs train to be lifted in case they must be lifted in or out of SAR situations.
Jager has been training for two years to become a live find SAR dog focused in wilderness. Dogs train to be lifted in case they must be lifted in or out of SAR situations. Photography courtesy Tanya Sarlanis.

If your dog is one with drive from working dog lines, he could be a great working dog, and you may want to look into becoming a search-and-rescue (SAR) team. However, this certification is a big dedication of time and training for both the human and the dog. It’s not to be taken lightly but could be a fantastic way to help, especially after all the natural disasters we saw in 2017.

Tanya Sarlanis, who has a rescue dog, Jager, now in SAR training for the last two years focusing on wilderness rescues, says, “Before getting into the specifics of search and rescue, it’s important to remember that a handler (the human) must be committed to the training involved and understand the time commitment. Not every search and not every training will involve your dog. Most of the time, you will have to do human training and dog training, as SAR K-9 is a specialty. It’s like how you have to become a police officer first before you become part of the K-9 team. This isn’t a volunteer opportunity to be taken lightly, and there are many things to consider before starting.”

Tanya first had to do her training and was certified through the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) to become a SAR Tech II. Then she started training her K-9, Jager. There are different K-9 areas to focus on such as live find/area search, urban, trailing and human remains detection, among others.

There are many different SAR organizations and groups across the country to research, if you are really interested in being a SAR team with your dog. Different areas and states will also use dogs differently when it comes to SAR.

If you think your dog would be a great therapy dog, SAR dog or you just want to get his CGC certification, contact your local dog training facility to see if it has any dog training classes on how to get started.

Fake service dogs hurt us all

You may have heard news stories over the last year about people using fake service dogs to fly with, bring into restaurants, into stores and using fake service dog vests. As of October 2017, there are 19 states cracking down and passing laws against fake service dogs, as these dogs are often not well-behaved, act out and cause problems for real service dogs and their owners who depend on them.

Service dogs are trained to be under control, not bark or react when out in public with their owners – most people hardly notice they are there due to their years of training. Dogs are used for service for many different reasons (PTSD, canine assistance dogs, guide dogs for the blind, deaf or disabled, epilepsy or seizure detection dogs) and they are lifelines for their owners.

Fake service dogs and their owners are doing a disservice to anyone who depends on their service dog and needs them to go about their daily lives.

Thumbnail: Photography ©al_louc | Thinkstock.

Nancy Hassel is the pet parent of Pit Bull Cody and the President of American Pet Professionals, an award winning business networking and educational organization for the pet industry since 2009. Nancy travels the country as a speaker, media and public relations specialist, working with pet companies in many aspects including event planning and training for pet professionals. Find her on Instagram and Twitter at @AmericanPetPros.

Tell us: Did you certify your dog? What is your dog certified in?

Editor’s note: This article appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you

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13 thoughts on “How to Certify Your Dog as a Therapy, Search or Rescue Service Dog”

  1. I too am wondering about a service dog. I have had my doctor say that he will sign the forms required my HOA condo. I can only afford to train the dog myself. On the form, they want to know that it is trained.

    I was floored when the wanted my medical records and required a release of records form.
    I have PTSD, bipolar disorder, no balance function, hearing loss and anxiety. Yes, I know I need a large animal (dog) to handle bracing if/when I fall or to prevent falls. It says on this terrific form that my medical information may be shared!!! I live in Utah, is this all legal?

  2. Margaret billingsley

    After I get my 8 week old puppy and do the basic training how do I get him certified to be my service dog? I live in Port Angeles and I don’t know where to go to get him certified. I’m disabled and have falling issues and walk with a walker. Any info would be appreciated

    1. Hi there,
      Here are some articles on service animals that might help:

  3. Sarah Kankiewicz

    I agree with the above statements. My dog is a CGC and PTSD dog. I did constant training with him for 3 years to earn the right to wear a vest. That training is on going and never stops. He wears his vest an I wear my badge anytime we go in a store or restaurant. I’m amazed at how many cashier’s comment on his good behavior! All dogs should be there!!


  5. Rev Chad M Brown

    I have a service dog, a dog that responds to sounds for me. She does tasks for me as well, by alerting me of a baby cry, door bell, phone etc. Being deaf isn’t easy, but it is easier with this. i agree with Heather, I had to train my dog, and that is ok, but so many people have claimed that their dog is a service dog, and yet their dog is urinating on the floor or things, barking at people walking by, being aggressive. Yet the person isn’t paying attention to the dog’s behavior that is not consistent with training. too many people ruin it for those who need it. we need to remove the certified wording because I have yet to find any certification that is valid out there.

  6. Pingback: Dogs in Service | Zignature

  7. service dog handler

    So many people think any working dog is a “service dog” like one defined by the ADA. It’s an ADA service dog that is allowed to go anywhere, not a search and rescue or therapy dog. I agree with Heather. Remove “service” from this discussion to make a clear distinction and not confuse people.

  8. There is no certification or registry for service dogs. You can buy a “certification” online, but it is meaningless. I think you need to clarify that as it’s why there are so many fake service dogs.

  9. Kody is a BMD and has been a certified and working Therapy dog for 5 years in the Myrtle Beach area. Our organization trains and certifies all our teams and the requirements are extremely stringent. Maybe even more so than Tdi. It’s extremely rewarding for both of us. I also have Shayla, NSDTR. She’s been part of our team for 3 years. Shay had a difficult puppyhood and is a rescue. She brings some shyness to the table but kids seem to really take to her for that reason.

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