Can a Pitbull Become a Therapy Dog?

We know pitbulls are immensely strong and driven, but despite their “ferocious” reputation, these dogs are loyal and bright enough to become trained therapy and emotional support animals.

Jan 15, 2024By Lisa Szymanski
can a pitbull become a therapy dog

Most pitbull owners would agree that their loving and outgoing pittie would make an excellent support dog. However, their fearsome reputation leaves many questioning their trustworthiness with strangers and in busy environments. Therapy dogs are meant to have docile personalities, and they should be smart enough to learn high levels of obedience.

Fortunately, this is part of the definition of a pitbull, which makes them outstanding candidates. To determine whether a pitbull can become a therapy dog, I consider their personalities and traits, and how they can transform into beautiful support animals.

What is a Therapy Dog?

large pitbull lying on the floor
Can a pitbull really become a therapy dog?

When you hear the words “therapy dog,” the image of a highly trained German shepherd or a soft-natured labrador comes to mind. As a dog owner myself, I would love to think of my own pets as good support dogs because they’re friendly and alert. However, the reason that specific breeds make the cut is because they have unique qualities for training, socializing, and adaptability.

Most dogs can perform basic disciplines such as sit and heel, but as therapy animals, the stakes are a lot higher. A therapy dog accompanies their owners to senior homes, schools, and even hospitals, where they provide a calm and soothing presence for children and adults. These dogs must be patient and extremely friendly, which means polite personalities with exceptional manners. Such support animals make adults and children feel good by simply being there for them.

What is the Difference Between a Therapy and a Service Dog?

pitbull standing next to small white terrier dog
Therapy dogs offer emotional and cognitive support.

It’s easy to confuse therapy and service dogs because their roles and responsibilities seem so similar. The truth is that therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs because they learn different commands and perform in dissimilar environments. Service animals are taught to help people with physical limitations, such as someone who is wheelchair-bound or blind. They learn complex tasks such as turning the lights off in a room and fetching medication.

Some of these dogs are trained to alert their handler of an impending seizure in cases of epilepsy or find help if their handler is incapacitated. Therapy dogs are more interactive and have to sit or lie down for long periods of time when meeting new people. They have to learn many commands, but not at the same level as service dogs. Therapy animals do not receive the same privileges as service pets and are not allowed to get onto planes or enter restaurants.

Why a Pitbull Would Make a Good Therapy Dog

baby holding the lead of tan pitbull
The pitbull is loyal and courageous and makes a good emotional support dog.

There are a few things that a dog needs to become a sound therapy animal. They have to be sweet-natured, trainable, and love people. As pitbulls already have these traits, it makes sense to consider them as emotional support animals. Pitbulls trained from puppyhood don’t turn out to be scary dogs. They listen to commands, they love everyone they meet, and they thrive on human attention. Pitties enjoy being at their owner’s side, and with their intelligence, they quickly learn what is expected of them. Once this breed develops special skills and understands their duties, they make fantastic therapy dogs.

Can You Train a Pitbull to Be a Therapy Dog?

blue pitbull sitting on boardwalk
Pitbulls are clever and they love people.

Yes, you can definitely train a pitbull to become an emotional support animal, whether a young or old dog. Pitbulls are clever, and despite their high energy levels, a lot of this energy can be redirected for training. Of course, a pitbull chosen for this role must have the right personality and temperament. They need to be sweet-natured without fear or anxiety, particularly when meeting new people or being introduced to unfamiliar environments. These dogs must be outgoing without being excitable to keep behaviors such as jumping and pawing under control.

The people who benefit from therapy dogs want to feel emotionally supported by these animals that are trained to create a calm presence. This means that dogs should sit quietly or lie down and relax next to the person they are assisting. Pitbulls with these qualities that enjoy company will go on to become long-term therapy dogs that can be trusted around other people, kids, and pets.

Are Pitbulls Too Aggressive to Be Support Dogs?

brown and white pitbull standing alert
The imposing pitbull requires strict training to be a therapy dog.

I know that the pitbull breed is considered aggressive and challenging to handle, but even rescue pitbulls have gone on to become emotional support dogs. An example of pitbulls that were given a second chance includes the Viktory dogs rescued in 2007 from a football player involved in dog fighting. A dog rescue team decided to rehabilitate over twenty of these pitbulls, and after successfully completing their support dog training, they officially became therapy dogs. Pitbulls with a gentle nature and a confident personality can be trained to serve as therapy dogs. Some have even moved on to register as service dogs. Regardless of the breed and age, the right amount of time, training, and effort can prevent triggers that lead to fear and aggression.

Training a Pitbull as a Therapy Dog

friendly pitbull licking face of little girl
Pitbulls love children and can become outstanding therapy animals.

A pitbull can be trained as a personal therapy dog that visits senior centers, schools, and hospitals. They can also be taught to aid professionals such as doctors and teachers to ease anxiety in clients and students. Training this bully breed first requires that the dog have the right temperament. No nervousness or aggressive reactions, particularly when in new surroundings and groups of people. The next step is basic obedience and listening to commands to keep your pittie under control, whether in a quiet clinic or a bustling classroom.

Techniques like positive reinforcement, regular walks to curb energy, and consistent leadership are vital when raising a therapy and emotional support dog. A pitbull is an excellent representative of the breed as a therapy dog. They also empower children and adults to overcome their fears when calmly interacting with one of the world’s most feared breeds.

Lisa Szymanski
By Lisa Szymanski

Lisa is a wildlife enthusiast who enjoys hiking and gardening and has four years of experience volunteering at pet shelters. She is the proud mom of two dogs, a Pitbull named Ragnar, a Boerboel named Blueberry, and four feisty chickens, or as she calls them, the "queens of the yard," Goldie, Gray, Peaches, and Brownie.