In so many ways, the temperament of a well socialized, loving PWD makes one of the most suitable breeds/species for therapy animal visits. Some visits are called by different names: Animal-assisted activities (often thought of as “warm fuzzy” visits; enjoyable experiences interacting with the dogs, but no specific goals for visit, and no documentation of outcome); Animal Assisted Therapy (now called Animal Assisted Intervention by Delta Society) would be those visits incorporating therapy into the visit. This can be physical, occupational, speech, or other 'therapy' sessions.
Many practitioners use their PWDs (or teams with PWDs) in social and psychiatric work; prison work; some are specifically further trained and certified for crisis work and many other ways to reach client/patient/recipients.
It is a very good idea to align with one of the recognized organizations. In doing so, you can assure at least some measure of responsibility and training, as well as being covered by insurance during your volunteer visits. In addition to the “top three” national organizations listed below, there are often regional or local organizations as well. Some organizations, such as Therapy Dogs International, have 'exclusivity' issues, i.e. if you belong to their organization, you (currently) may not also belong say to R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs).
Depending on what your activities in therapy visits are going to be, this may be a consideration in which organization you become involved. Basically, therapy visits are all about 'good manners', socialization from basically birth (though dogs of any age are able to be excellent therapy dogs); and most importantly, predictable response(s) from the dog(s).
Therapy work is truly a team effort - you and your animal are a team, and must always work together. You are the only advocate there for your dog in any situation, so it's your utmost responsibility to have your dog's welfare in mind first and foremost. Not all dogs are suited to therapy work, or perhaps not to all venues. For example, hospice work can be very difficult on ultra sensitive dogs; nobody likes to lose their patients.
There are many groups out there with which you can affiliate, and do your visits with others. This works well for many people. Some dogs, while not as strong on one-to-one visits, might very well make excellent therapy 'entertainment' dogs - performing for groups in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, etc. Even if lots of petting isn't their 'thing', often entertaining is. It's all about finding the right fit for YOUR dog.
Many facilities don't require certification/registration status of any kind. That's fine, but you wouldn't be covered by insurance should your leash trip someone, or heaven forbid, you or your animal injured someone (or you were injured). If you think you want to get started in therapy work, start first by taking your puppy/dog everywhere you can.
Remember, therapy dogs have no “legal” rights (ala service dogs); however many facilities are happy to allow you to enter to train. It's generally suggested to obtain a vest at either www.sitstay.com or www.raspberryfield.com; dogs need uniforms too to help them know which job they're doing (just like different collars for different show activities). You can get a therapy dog vest, with “In Training” patch on it, to help your dog, and others know your dog is in training for a very special job.
It's important to know your dog well enough to recognize stress, and to recognize that hey, even if you really, really want to (name your program), that particular venue might not be right for your dog. Your dog must thoroughly trust that you are always in charge, and always have it's best interest in mind.
Put those incredible minds, and working genes to work in this mentally challenging field - it's addictive!
-- based on Laurie Hardman's article on pwdca.com
How to Get Started
It's really pretty easy to get started - take your pup/dog everywhere you possibly can, exposing it to everything you possibly can. You want your dog to be able to encounter things (equipment, sounds, people), and have a reaction that says “hmmm, that's interesting!”.
You want your pup/dog to become not only immune to sounds and sights, but to eagerly seek out attention (without the over exuberance of knocking someone over!). Tricks are a bonus, but not required. The ability to get along with other dogs preferred, but in general one can arrange to do their visits alone, and most likely not encounter other dogs (although any therapy dog should have the manners to be able to meet any dog, and there is a requirement to 'meet a neutral dog' in at least two of the national organizations' tests).
These are the two largest national therapy organizations: