While any well-behaved animal can provide some comfort and companionship to the sick, elderly and other people in need, getting a certification for you and your pet means you'll be able to do it in more formal settings, such as nursing homes and hospitals. The process for certifying an animal therapy team involves passing an evaluation, but depending on the organization, you might have other steps to follow.
Before you decide on an organization, research your options and find one that's well-respected and recognized by other animal organizations. For example, the American Kennel Club recognizes certifications from Therapy Dogs Incorporated, Therapy Dogs International, Pet Partners, Love on a Leash and Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, meanwhile, recommends Pet Partners, which certifies dogs as well as cats, rabbits and other pets. Find out which organizations offer a chapter near you, and ask about the costs of certification. Read the organizations' FAQs to find out whether you'll have any conflicts by pursuing one certification or another. Therapy Dogs International, for example, doesn't allow members to register with more than one organization.
Your Animal's Temperament
A big part of gaining certification depends on the temperament of your pet. Generally, your pet needs to be a "model citizen" that doesn't have a history of biting, growling or lashing out at humans or other animals. If your pet has a short fuse, he's probably not a good fit for animal therapy. You will need to have sufficient animal handling skills to control your pet, and he should be potty trained.
Depending on the organization, you may have to attend a training session for humans or a pet obedience class as part of the certification process. Pet Partners, for example, has its human candidates take an animal handler course as one of the first steps in the process. Therapy Dogs International doesn't have a similar requirement, though it does recommend its dogs and humans attend an obedience class, or that you train your dog yourself before pursuing certification. Also visit a vet and obtain any vaccinations or health certifications required by the organization with which you're pursuing certification.
The Evaluation Process
With the prerequisites done, register for an evaluation with the certifying organization and pay the appropriate fee. Read over the handbook or instructions about the evaluation carefully so you're prepared for evaluation day. Evaluators will check the animal's temperament in various situations, and ensure you have the animal under control. Choosing a certifying organization with a chapter near you really helps, since it will make it easier to register for an evaluation that is not too far from home. After completing your initial evaluation, the certifying organization may have you attend your first few therapy sessions with your evaluator, so you and your pet can get feedback. Love on a Leash, for example, has its new members do 10 hours of supervised visits.