What Makes a Good Therapy Dog? 5 Best Breed Characteristics

There are many considerations that go into the training of therapy dogs in order for them to complete their work successfully. I’ve spent some time compiling a list of what characteristics therapy dogs need, plus lower down the page what breeds make good therapy dogs.

What makes a good therapy dog? There are five main traits and characteristics that make a good therapy dog. These include being calm, adaptable, gentle, people lovers and intelligent. Certain breeds with these traits make better therapy dogs than others.

What traits and qualities make good therapy dogs?

Therapy dogs can be used to assist with conditions and illnesses such as autism, severe anxiety, PTSD, heart failure and cancer. Because of this, they need to be a certain type of dog.

The way that the dog helps will variety depending on the condition, but they are typically used to provide general comfort, help people recover from panic attacks and reduce the effects of loneliness. They can also run for help if their owner requires immediate assistance.

Here’s a more in-depth look at what traits dogs need to make the best therapy dogs.

1. Personality

The most important characteristics of a good therapy dog relate to their personality. A therapy dog needs to be calm and not easily stressed by uncomfortable situations.

The dog will be helping people who are suffering from a variety of conditions and needs to be a constant form of support.

The dog needs to be able to go into unfamiliar places with no issue and also need to remain focused if their companion requires immediate assistance.

therapy dog breeds
Certain breeds make the best therapy dogs (Image licensed via Storyblocks.com).

2. Adaptability

Another characteristic of a therapy dog is its adaptability. If a person needs the use of a therapy dog, they are likely at risk of putting themselves or others at risk. A dog needs to be always aware that their companion may do something unexpected and act in a volatile manner.

For example, a person with PTSD might suddenly burst into tears, and the dog will need to provide comfort right away.

3. Gentleness

A third trait that makes up a good therapy dog is how gentle they are. The dog may be working with young children or an elderly person and needs to be aware of its strength.

A therapy dog should always perform its task with as much gentleness as possible without hurting their companion.

4. Loving

A good therapy dog should be people lovers, as they will be working closely with their handlers and then their human companions. Therapy dogs have the purpose of providing stability and comfort to people.

The dog will need to be comfortable being near humans and not be skittish at all. The dog may also need to run to a stranger for help, so it should be able to do so with no fear.

5. Intelligence

Intelligence is a trait that all good therapy dogs should have. The dog needs to be able to read their companions’ mood so that they can react accordingly – which is why they are so good for mental health. When the dog is working, they need to understand that they must remain focused on their tasks at all times.

They cannot get distracted and go chasing after a squirrel, because then their companion will be left unattended. The dog should also be a quick-learner and obey commands without hesitation.

What breeds make the best therapy dogs?

Certain types of breeds make good therapy dogs when compared to others. Their breed traits make them more suited to the job of therapy dog.

Others breeds might struggle, but they can do the job if they are trained very well, and some breeds will never be seen with a service vest on. This all depends on the general predisposition and personality of the breed in question.

1. Labrador Retrievers

Labs are at the top of the list of breeds that make good therapy dogs because they tend to love working with people. They are sturdy animals, but not too large that they might injure someone by accident.

what breeds make good therapy dogs
This Labrador was a therapy dog when my son was in hospital.

They are energetic and playful when they are allowed to be, but they also have the discipline to be able to calm down immediately and sit with their companion. Labs are also very smart and are easily trained.

2. Pugs

Pugs are small dogs that can easily be handled without too much trouble. They love cuddling with humans and are able to sense how their companion is feeling.

Pugs do not often get upset, and they will be happy to accompany their owner from one location to another. They do not have a lot of energy, so they will probably need to take a break once in a while – good characteristics of a therapy dog I am sure you will agree!

3. Yorkshire Terrier

Yorkshire Terriers are small and stubborn. If they sense that their owner needs assistance, they will bring them help in whatever form possible. This could include fetching medication, pressing an alarm button, or running to the nearest stranger.

This breed of therapy dog will often be used in hospital settings because their small size prevents them from getting in the way of medical professionals.

4. German Shepherd

German Shepherds are known for their reservation around strangers. This is good trait for a therapy dog, because they won’t get as distracted when walking outside.

Despite this, German Shepherds are very loyal to their owners, and will enjoy playing with them. When playtime is over, this type of dog can easily calm down and remain focused on its tasks.

Difference between therapy and service dogs

It can be difficult to remember how to differentiate between different types of working dogs. A therapy dog has the purpose of helping their companion cope with various conditions including the stress from having a physical sickness.

They will often work in schools, nursing homes or hospitals to provide comfort and entertainment to patients or struggling students.

A service dog has more of an active role with their companions, as they help with physical disabilities. This includes guide and hearing dogs that help the blind and deaf. These dogs will be trained to do tasks such as open doors, fetch medication and press alarm buttons if required.

Service dogs will be given more rigorous training, as they have more responsibility to take care of their owners.

This difference can mean that what makes a good therapy dog might not necessarily make a good service dog.

How to act around therapy dogs

Therapy dogs are easily distinguishable while walking outside in public. They will typically be wearing a bandana or simple vest, different from that of a service dog.

Therapy dogs are attuned to their companions and are keeping watch at all times. Therapy dogs are well trained, but you can do your part to help by minimizing distractions when you see one.

If you are travelling with a child, quietly explain to them that the dog is working and they cannot pet them – here’s a deeper explanation on why it’s not wise to pet service dogs.

If the child kicks up a fuss, leave the area so as to avoid distracting the dog with the noise. If you have your own dog with you, pull the leash tight to avoid having the two interact. If possible, cross to the other side of the road to keep the two dogs apart.

You might experience the scenario in which a therapy dog will come up to you and their owner will be nowhere in sight. If this happens, it means that the dog is trying to get help for their owner, and you should follow them immediately.

Therapy dogs do not have the same legal right to enter all establishments like service animals do. The ability to enter a building is typically decided on by the owner on a case-by-case basis. If the business owner knows the dog is friendly, they will usually allow entry.


When I was younger, I wanted to work with animals when I grew up. I thought about a lot of different possible careers, but one that fascinated me the most was therapy dog trainers.

As time went on, that never quite panned out, but I still have my love of dogs as you already know… and think I have a good idea on what makes the best therapy dog breeds.

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Image in header licensed via Storyblocks.com.

Marc Aaron

I write about the things we've learned about owning dogs, the adventures we have, and any advice and tips we've picked up along the way.

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