New law will develop training standards for therapy dogs

Photo courtesy of the American Kennel Club

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation on December 3, 2019 to develop new training standards for therapy dogs.

The new law (S.4802/A.6601) will establish state guidance on best practices for therapy dogs, therapy dog handlers and facilities, training, risk management and animal welfare.

The law requires the state Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets — collaborating with other relevant agencies and stakeholders — to develop guidance for therapy dogs, their handlers and the institutions that use such animals. The guidance will be made available on the department’s website and provided to municipalities that issue special therapy dog tags.

The new law is needed, sponsors say, because there has been some confusion about the role of therapy dogs, which are not service dogs.

While service dogs assist disabled people in their everyday life, therapy dogs are commonly used to alleviate stress in children, seniors, college students and residents of institutions such as nursing homes, hospitals and mental health facilities.

Therapy dogs are not trained to assist specific individuals, and do not qualify as service dogs under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Instead, they can provide emotional and psychological support and comfort in stressful situations, or in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and even in disaster areas.

“Therapy dogs positively affect the emotional well-being of people they visit in schools, libraries, hospitals, nursing homes, mental health facilities, and other places,” said Assembly sponsor Donna Lupardo, D-Endwell. “Guidelines will now be available regarding the definition, training, handling and use of these dogs.”

A goal of this new law is to help educate the public on what a therapy dog is and how they should be trained and used, especially when local governments issue official tags designating therapy dogs.

Concerns over hygiene, allergies, safety, animal welfare, legal liability, inconsistent training standards and the lack of a uniform certification process have led to some confusion over what a therapy dog is, and where and how they can be used.

“I strongly believe in the importance of creating and enforcing standards and regulations for the licensing, training and handling of therapy dogs,” said Senate sponsor Monica Martinez, D-Brentwood. “Therapy dogs play a vital role in helping people and have shown to have a positive emotional effect on those they visit. I am confident, with this legislation, we can create a positive experience for everyone including our therapy dogs.”

A Therapy Dog Working Group — consisting of multiple state agencies, representatives of disability rights groups and animal protective advocates — examined issues related to therapy dogs and issued a report in 2018.

The working group looked into the need for education, training, identifying what therapy dogs do, and clarifying the differences from service dogs and emotional support animals.

“Therapy dogs provide an incredible service to those in need and should be trained to the highest possible standards,” Gov. Cuomo said. “This legislation will establish best practices for New York’s therapy dogs so that they can provide the best possible attention and care to New Yorkers who rely on them every day.”