German Shepherd Therapy Dogs

Sam Shephard is an experienced German Shepherd owner and has learned throughout the years how to optimize the breed's health and wellness.

People have known for centuries that pets help to relieve anxiety, provide emotional support, and overall make life happier. Today, there are official designations for dogs that fulfill these purposes: therapy dogs and emotional support dogs. Whether you are looking to volunteer or to address mental health in your own life, a dog can be an excellent companion.

When people think of jobs for German Shepherds, they are most likely to think of them as police or military dogs. But German Shepherds’ intelligence and affection also makes them perfectly suited to be therapy and emotional support dogs. With the right training, a German Shepherd can make a big difference in your life and the lives of those around you.

What Is a Therapy Dog?

A therapy dog is a dog specially trained to provide emotional comfort, affection, and support to people through volunteering. Owners may take their therapy dogs to visit hospitals, retirement homes, disaster areas, and schools. Visits from a therapy dog can provide people in these settings with joy and comfort during difficult times.

Therapy dogs can also help with specific activities, such as helping children with autism practice reading aloud, or encouraging patients to participate in gentle physical activities. Therapy dogs have been proven to reduce stress, as well as to help people work towards social and communicative goals.

What Traits Make A Good Therapy Dog?

The most important characteristics of a great therapy dog are that they are calm and that they get along with all people. A therapy dog must maintain a calm demeanor in loud or crowded rooms, be able to focus despite distractions, and avoid jumping on people. Dogs of any size can make good therapy dogs. It is most important that they are calm, social, and have the intelligence and concentration for thorough training.

Do German Shepherds Make Good Therapy Dogs?

Because of their intelligence and affectionate nature, German Shepherds make some of the best therapy dogs. German Shepherds are incredibly smart, which means they can be trained to do almost anything. With some dedicated time, German Shepherds can learn to be patient, quiet, and calm even in hectic settings.

German Shepherds are also extremely social and will enjoy all the attention they receive as part of therapy activities. Because German Shepherds are such athletic dogs, you will have to be careful when training them about distinguishing between playtime and therapy time.

A German Shepherd therapy dog will need plenty of play and exercise, but they’ll have to remain calm when meeting new people, rather than trying to play. You should keep in mind that some people may feel nervous around German Shepherds because of their reputation as police and military dogs. When volunteering for therapy, always respect the comfort level of other people.

Therapy Dog Training and Certification

Some places require official certification before you and your dog can volunteer together. Organizations such as the Alliance of Therapy Dogs provide training and certification. Typically these programs involve a training course, test, and monitoring during the first few volunteer visits.

Once your German Shepherd has therapy dog certification, you may be able to access opportunities to volunteer with national organizations such as the Red Cross. You may be able to find a local organization that offers therapy dog training and certification. If you’re interested in volunteering at a specific facility, try asking them if they work with a particular therapy dog organization.

What Is an Emotional Support Dog?

Emotional support dogs are a little different from a therapy animals, although both use a similar skill set. Therapy dogs provide emotional relief to others through volunteering, and emotional support dogs provide support to their owners. People suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses can benefit immensely from having an emotional support animal. Some doctors or therapists may recommend getting an emotional support animal as part of treatment, and some places (such as college dormitories and apartment complexes that don’t usually allow animals) may make accommodations for an emotional support dog.

It is important to note, however, that emotional support animals are distinct from service animals, which have access protected by law. A number of different animals can become emotional support animals, including cats, pigs, rabbits, ferrets, and birds. But dogs are the most popular.

Do German Shepherds Make Good Emotional Support Dogs?

For the same reasons that German Shepherds make great therapy dogs, they can be fantastic emotional support dogs: they’re smart and loving. An emotional support dog should also be trained to be calm and obedient. For an emotional support dog, the individual connection with the owner is especially important. The best emotional support dogs are emotionally in sync with their people so they can provide comfort when it’s most necessary.

German Shepherds form close bonds with their people. Keep in mind that every dog is different. Just because a dog is a German Shepherd doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a perfect therapy or emotional support dog. It’s important to get to know the individual dog’s temperament to see if they’ll be a good fit.

Emotional Support Dog Certification

There are a number of organizations that can provide your German Shepherd with emotional support dog certification. Certification provides a couple of key benefits: you can take your dog with you on a commercial flight without paying an extra fee, and you can live with your dog in pet-free housing. To obtain these rights, you need a letter from your doctor authorizing you to have an emotional support dog. There is no official registry or certification process for emotional support animals.

There are many websites advertising certification and official letters for emotional support animals, but these do not offer any real benefit. All you need is a letter from your medical practitioner. An “emotional support dog” vest does not grant your dog the right to enter places where dogs are typically not allowed, such as movie theaters and restaurants.

How to Train a German Shepherd Therapy Dog

Unlike service dogs, which are usually trained by specialists as puppies, most therapy dogs are trained by their owners after adoption. Training your dog as a therapy dog is a lot of work, and there are training programs that can help. But you may want to at least start training yourself. The two most important foundations of German Shepherd therapy dog training are temperament and obedience.

It is essential that your dog is socialized to feel comfortable in all settings, with all kinds of people, without ever showing fear or aggression. You’ll have to prepare your dog through regular socialization: visiting dog parks, public parks, friends’ homes, and public areas. Your dog should feel comfortable entering unfamiliar spaces and meeting new people. You may also need to train them to interact with specific physical features, such as elevators.

Another training involves standard (but thorough!) obedience training. Your dog should be able to sit, stay, heel, and lay down. German Shepherds excel at this kind of training when worked with consistently. When you’re working on training, it’s important to use positive reinforcement, such as treats and praise, rather than punishments. Positive training helps your dog to enjoy working with you and obeying your commands, while negative training can cause your dog to develop fear and aggression over time.

If you have a German Shepherd or have always loved them, and you’re thinking about getting a therapy animal or emotional support animal, the pairing could be perfect. With the right temperament match and proper training, German Shepherds can make some of the best assistance animals.

Further Reading

  • AKC (American Kennel Club), How To Train a Therapy Dog, 2019.
  • Matthews Max, Service Dog: Training Your Own Service Dog & Psychiatric Service Dog, CPI, 2018, 222p.

© 2020 Sam Shepards

Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on August 08, 2020:

Thank you glad you enjoyed the article. German Shepherds are great pets and excellent for service dog training. A fully trained service dog is of course very expensive and only for people in need. But have a GSD in the house is excellent for the overall atmosphere and fun if you have the time and space.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 07, 2020:

Good stuff I like it. I need one.

German Shepherds as Service Dogs Are Not for Everyone

There are a large number of reasons why German shepherds make for a great service companion for a person. Their work can range from police dogs or assisting in narcotics and bomb detection to being a loving companion to someone suffering from PTSD or depression- and there’s a reason why!

German Shepherds are very intelligent, and they possess reliable obedience. They have a strong work ethic and a high level of energy to match, which makes them a good choice for any variety of jobs, whether as a police dog or simply as a loyal family pet.

One reason why German Shepherds would make great guide dogs lies in their nature. They are herders by instinct, and they like to lead and make sure that others are following.

Healthy dogs have a lean, muscular, solid physique which gives off a strong presence. If the owner of the German Shepherd is blind, for example, the dog can ward off anyone who might want to make them an easy target. Not to mention, German Shepherds are great at warning people of danger.

If someone is getting close to the edge of the sidewalk, if they are at risk by someone else (like the scenario above), or if they’re struggling within the confines of their own home, a German Shepherd will do its best to forewarn and protect them.

A German Shepherd’s fur provides good tolerance against hot and cold. So, whether you’re in the mood for a summer stroll down the street or a snowy walk through the park, your pet will be fine against the weather.

Like every other breed of dog, German Shepherds have a very kind and loving attitude, and they are natural helpers who are willing to serve others.

Despite all these good qualities, not everyone is suitable to possess a German Shepherd. German Shepherds require a lot of daily exercise . Rather than playing as a source to burn off energy, they are more task-oriented.

Because of their task-oriented personalities, they need someone who is capable of keeping them mentally and physically stimulated. If they are neglected in these things, a German Shepherd can develop behavioral problems.

Another part of their personality is they have a strong, protective instinct. If left unchecked, a German Shepherd can be prone to aggressiveness in public, like if they encounter other dogs or people.

They can also be easily distracted, which is not something you would want your pet to do if you need to get someplace and they want to go wherever they please.

In order for a German Shepherd to overcome this temperament, they need to be properly and successfully trained, which is why they should be partnered with people who are able to exercise strong authority over them and restrain them if needed.

Characteristics Of Therapy Dogs

While any dog can be trained to be a therapy dog, there are certain characteristics that a dog should display in order to be a likely candidate.


Therapy dogs should be intelligent dogs. These dogs need to be good at reading people so that they know when it is time to play, and when it is time to stay calm and just be present.

They also need to be able to adapt to ever-changing situations as they are taken to new places and meeting new people. For this, you definitely want an intelligent dog that will quickly pick up on what is going on around them.

Well Trained

Therapy dogs need to be extremely well trained, both to complete specific tasks, such as leading patients through certain activities, and to be highly controllable within the institutional environment within which they are working.

Therapists and patients alike should be able to call a dog to their side or command them to sit with an easy command, no matter what else is going on in the space.

Dogs that are highly trainable make the best therapy dogs as they are required to learn new things. For example, some dogs can pick up a new command after seeing or hearing it fewer than five times.

Other dogs may need to see a command repeated more than 100 times before it sticks in their heads.


The environments in which therapy dogs are asked to work are often turbulent and unpredictable. They are full of people, noises, and distractions. For this reason, therapy dogs need to be able to focus on an individual or task.

A person suffering from social anxiety won’t feel better if their therapy dog is distracted by every new person that walks through the door.

Therapy dogs need to have a calm temperament. While there is always time to play, therapy dogs can’t be jumping up on new people when they meet them.

They may also need to be able to sit calmly with a patient for extended periods of time without growing restless.

While high energy dogs can make great therapy dogs, they need to know how to channel their energy appropriately.


Therapy dogs need to like being around people and other animals they will likely not be the only animal working in their institution.

Dogs that get anxious around other animals, small children, or big crowds aren’t suitable for this type of work.

They will also be required to quickly form bonds with the patients that they are supporting, so dogs that adore people make the best therapy dogs.

Comfortable Being Touched

Not all dogs like to be touched, and while some dogs like a good stroke, they may have trigger areas of their bodies that are off-limits, and they might snap if they are touched there.

Patients need to be able to touch therapy dogs without fear, including when they first get to know each other and they might not yet already know the dog’s sensitive areas. Dogs that enjoy being touched make better therapy dog candidates.


Some dogs are extremely friendly, but they don’t always know their own strength and may rub up against or barge into small children and the elderly with too much strength, potentially injuring them.

Therapy dogs need to be aware of their size and strength and they need to know how to engage in a gentle manner. It is also useful if they have a soft mouth to play and pick up things without damaging them.


Therapy dogs are often called to work in environments that need to be kept clean for a variety of reasons, such as hospitals and nursing homes.

As such, therapy dogs also need to be clean and need to bring as few nasties into their environment as possible.

This means that they should always be immaculately groomed, and low shedding dogs and dogs that don’t drool to excess also make better options.

Information on Therapy Dogs

Are you looking for information on therapy dogs? There are many reasons to involve German Shepherds in therapy work. Aside from curing loneliness and depression regular visits from a lovable pooch can lower blood pressure, lower heart rates and ease the effects of Alzheimer’s among seniors.

Special needs children benefit by becoming more self-reliant and sociable from being around pets.And, not only does it benefit the two-legged, but pooch therapists get the chance to spread some of that unconditional "puppy love" to all those welcome recipients.

So, if your German Shepherd is a "people dog," what are you waiting for? Here are some ways to get her started spreading that furry sunshine right away as a trained therapy dog.

First, you need to test your dog to see if he/she has therapist potential. Take your dog on a leash to a place where there are a lot of people, such as a park, and see how your GSD reacts to, and interacts with, people petting her. See if your dog responds appropriately to your commands while in a hectic environment.

Here is a checklist of basic questions concerning information on therapy dogs that your answer should be a resounding "yes" to before you go any further. The main one being: Is your German Shepherd happy to be around people? Ascertain if your dog needs any special training before doing therapy work.

Some dogs automatically have what it takes and that includes being well behaved, well socialized and in good health. You and your dog should start out by joining a professional organization such as Therapy Dogs Inc. or perhaps a local organization, which provides loads of support, instruction, insurance and other services needed by owners of therapy dogs. Another issue to consider is that many facilities might prefer that your German Shepherd is first registered with a professional organization before allowing you to interact with their residents/patients. Contact hospitals, nursing homes, retirement residences, hospices, schools and any other special needs center in your area that could benefit from and welcome therapy dogs. Find out how to go about applying. If you can, tour the facilities and get to know the staff and residents first, find out how receptive they would be to visits from a therapy dog and most importantly, whether or not they require your dog be certified. Next, bathe your dog close to the time of each visit, make sure his coat is free of parasites, brush his teeth and trim his nails. Brush and comb your dog immediately prior to each visit. Last but not least, make sure your dog is current on all it's vaccinations before making therapy visits.

Teach your dog a special verbal or physical cue before each and every therapy visit so that she'll know what her destination is going to be and what to expect while out. She'll soon come to eagerly await the visits and the special "alone" time with her guardian and best buddy - you.

Well, it's almost "alone" time. It'll be sort of like a "Fido and Me" class. Just you two and a room full of people eagerly awaiting interaction with your well trained German Shepherd. And if you're still interested in learning more, there is plenty of other information on therapy dogs online.

"Dogs, the foremost snobs in creation, are quick to notice the difference between a well-clad and a disreputable stranger." - Albert Payson Terhune 'The Coming of Lad'

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