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Therapy Dogs: Who They Are & What Do They Do
Therapy dogs are specially trained canines who provide comfort in care settings around the world. But how else do they benefit us? And how are they different from service & emotional support dogs?
In a world full of stress and challenges, our furry friends can make all the difference. So if you’ve ever run into a Golden Labrador or a Great Dane at a hospital or senior care home, chances are they’re volunteering their time there as a therapy dog. But what are therapy dogs? And what do they even do?
Well, these furry superheroes might not wear capes – but they come with the unique ability to bring joy, comfort, and healing to people in need. In this blog post, we’re going to dive into what makes a therapy dog, what they do, and what breeds fit the best in different therapeutic environments.
Table of contents
- What are therapy dogs?
- Are therapy dogs the same as service & emotional support dogs?
- A short history of therapy dogs & their work
- What do therapy dogs do?
- Do therapy dogs “work”?
- How therapy dogs add value to care environments
- Certifying and training a therapy dog
- Which are the best therapy dog breeds?
- Why it makes sense to monitor your therapy dog’s health
- Spreading care & comfort – one nuzzle at a time
What are therapy dogs?
Therapy dogs are specially trained canines that offer support and companionship to people in care settings. These might include:
- Rehabilitation centers
- Nursing homes
- Areas afflicted with disasters
- Schools, especially where students have learning disabilities
These dogs provide a unique kind of care through their presence and interactions. They bring a comforting, unconditionally loving presence to facilities where patients might be recovering from injury or trauma, and might be feeling lonely or anxious. They also provide solace to family members who might be grieving a loved one. They’re especially popular in pediatric wards, where children who are recuperating from disease or injury feel cheered up at the sight of a friendly dog.
Because of their role, therapy dogs must be well-equipped to navigate diverse environments. They should also be able interact with a range of different people with different needs. As a result, some dogs might be better suited to this role as a result of their temperament. (We cover a few of these below.)
Ideally, therapy dogs are:
- Friendly and sociable by temperament
- Comfortable being surrounded by and interacting with different people
- Attuned to the needs of people in care settings
- Able to cooperate with hospital or care home staff
- Able to easily adapt to new environments
- Pliable to their handler’s instructions
Are therapy dogs the same as service & emotional support dogs?
No, therapy dogs aren’t the same as service and emotional support dogs. Here are some key differences in their roles1:
- Service dogs are specifically trained to perform tasks for one person who has a specific disability. They’re protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the US and can access a number of public places. These might include places dogs aren’t usually allowed in, like flights and public transport.2
- Emotional support dogs are usually prescribed by a mental health professional to support the treatment of one person who’s experiencing mental health difficulties. They’re not protected by the ADA in the US and might not be allowed in certain public places (like libraries or airplanes.)3
Therapy dogs, on the other hand, address the needs of multiple people across different care environments. They’re specifically trained to offer a comforting presence to groups of people. And like emotional support dogs, they’re not protected under the same legal standards in the US. So they might not be allowed in areas like restaurants or other public places.
However, all three of these working dogs are trained and can be certified for their roles. And they all enrich and positively impact the lives of people around them.
A short history of therapy dogs & their work
Therapy dogs have been around for a while. In fact, some of the first animal-assisted therapeutic interventions began in the early 1960s with the work of child psychologist, Boris Levinson.4 He noticed during therapy how a previously non-verbal and withdrawn child opened up and responded positively to his dog, Jingles. This helped Levinson set up the foundations for animal-assisted interventions (AAI) as an add-on to regular therapeutic treatment.
Similarly, in the 1970s, Samuel Corson and Elizabeth O’Leary Corson studied how psychiatric patients found it easier to communicate with each other and staff when in the company of dogs.5 Building from this research, therapy evolved as another role for dogs to address a diverse array of needs and individuals.
What do therapy dogs do?
Therapy dogs might specialize across a variety of roles – all in the realm of care. Here are some of them:
Therapeutic visitation dogs
These dogs visit hospitals, care homes, rehabilitation centers, and more – all places they can provide a gentle, comforting presence to patients, residents, and students. They might be household pets whose parents take time to visit these facilities and help brighten their day.
Animal-assisted therapy dogs
These dogs work closely with healthcare professionals in therapy settings. They’re part and parcel of therapy sessions to help individuals achieve their goals.
Physical, occupational, and mental health professionals use the support of therapy dogs as a part of their sessions. Animal-assisted therapy dogs might also work in rehabilitation facilities.
Facility therapy dogs
Facility therapy dogs work specifically in places like nursing homes where residents might suffer from diseases like Alzheimer’s disease or other mental health difficulties. They usually live on the premises with a trained member of the staff.
Crisis response therapy dogs
These specialized working dogs provide emotional support to survivors and responders. Their calming presence can help reduce stress and anxiety during these kinds of challenging, life-threatening situations. As a result, crisis response therapy dogs must not be afraid of strangers or crowds or loud noises like crying or screaming – but must also be trained and socialized.
Do therapy dogs “work”?
While therapy dogs add immense value to our lives, they aren’t considered to be at “work”. (Unlike service dogs or other kinds of working dog breeds.) Legally, only the intense training and tasks that most service dogs go through qualify them as “working” dogs.
Therapy dogs, on the other hand, might go through basic good behavior training. But because they mainly provide comfort through their presence, it doesn’t qualify them as “working” dogs the same way as service dogs. As a result, therapy dogs aren’t protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
How therapy dogs add value to care environments
Therapy dogs bring a ton of benefits for the people they interact with. Besides just warmth and comfort, here are some of the advantages a therapy dog brings along:
Improved physical symptoms
The presence of a cheerful dog can help reduce cortisol, the stress hormone, and make patients feel happier and more relaxed instead. This in turn can help reduce their blood pressure and heart rate, as well as their anxiety.6
In fact, some studies have even found that children working on a stressful task tend to feel more positive about it when their pet dog or a therapy dog is around.7 (As compared to a parent – or even a stuffed dog.) These dogs also have a positive impact on children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), who might find it difficult to regulate their emotions.8
Improved emotional wellbeing
With their affectionate, playful natures, therapy dogs can bring smiles even on challenging days. As a result, their presence can help increase patients’ oxytocin and endorphins – which can also ease recovery.9
Interacting with dogs can also help patients regulate their emotions better when facing stress. In fact, some studies have found that the presence of a dog during psychotherapy can reduce distress in patients who’ve experienced trauma.10
Reduced social isolation
Healthcare facilities can be lonely, isolating places. Patients often miss their families and loved ones when institutionalized. Like in the studies from the 1970s, therapy dogs can help them feel less lonely, converse more easily with the people around them, and connect with each other more easily.11
Improved learning & cognition
Therapy dogs play an important role in schools too. Research suggests that even spending short periods of time with one can help children improve learning and cognitive skills. For example, some studies found children’s reading performance improved when they read to a dog.12 Others found that spending time with a therapy dog improved children’s speed in motor and cognitive skills, like in memory games.13
Above all, therapy dogs spread the purest form of love – unconditional and unwavering. They help create a safe, nurturing, non-judgmental environment where patients, residents, and students can feel completely accepted and cherished. As a result, they’re way more just than adorable companions, but rather indispensable members of therapy teams around the world. Through their training, dedication, and unconditional love, therapy dogs enrich the lives of countless people.
Certifying and training a therapy dog
If you have a dog who’s friendly and loves people, you might be wondering if they could count as a therapy dog. However, therapy dogs do need to be certified by and registered at a reputable national organization like Pet Partners14 or Therapy Dogs International.15 And to get certified, your dog would need to go through training and various assessments to gauge whether it’s the right temperament and fit for care settings.
For example, all therapy dogs must have basic training and be well-controlled in terms of their behavior. In some cases, they might need to pass the American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Good Citizen Test which helps all dogs learn basic good manners and how to interact with people and other dogs.16 As a result, therapy dogs must learn to remain calm, gentle, and obedient in various situations so that they can adapt best to the dynamic nature of their role.
So here are a couple of steps to get you started on your journey to training your dog to provide comfort in a care setting:
Socializing your dog from puppyhood can help them respond more positively to people – and other animals. This will also help them cooperate better with their fellow therapy dogs in training.
Give clicker training a whirl
Clicker training is a fun, practical way to positively reinforce good behaviors in your dog. It works well for dogs of all ages and temperaments – and for basic and advanced commands. You’ll find it helpful in training to dog to “sit”, “stay”, and “leave it”. Plus, it can help train your dog to not get too jumpy or energetic when in a care environment.
Get informed about registered training programs
For example, the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen program. It’s a 10-skill test that focuses on teaching good manners to dogs. With time, you can move on to more advanced training programs where you practice these skills in real-life scenarios.
Enroll in a registered training class
A training class isn’t just a great way to spend quality time with your dog and teach them new skills. Therapy dog training classes can provide you educational resources, a supportive network of fellow trainers, and even certification.
Once your dog has been trained and certified, they might be accommodated in more public spaces where dogs might not usually be allowed. (Like flights or public transport.) Make sure to check which national organizations offer certification so that your dog is eligible for the AKC Therapy Dog title.17
Which are the best therapy dog breeds?
Several dog breeds have the natural temperament to fit right into a care or therapeutic setting – friendly, sociable, highly intelligent, and attuned to the needs of people. Here are some that excel as therapy dogs.
One of the most iconic therapy dog breeds, Golden retrievers are famously gentle, friendly, sociable – and adapt excellently to different environments. With their high intelligence, obedience, and trainability, they make great companions in therapy settings.
Like their cousins, Labradors are friendly, outgoing, and eager to please. They’re also versatile and adaptable by temperament, making them excellent choices for therapy work in hospitals and schools.
Poodles are highly intelligent, trainable dogs – and they’re also hypoallergenic, which makes them a great choice for care residents with allergies. They’re also generally calm by temperament and excel in various therapy roles.
Gentle and affectionate, beagles’ small size and friendly temperaments make them excellent companions for therapy visits. They’re especially fond of children and the elderly.
Patient and friendly, these gentle giants are famous for being fond of children and make for excellent therapy dogs. Don’t worry about their size – they’re extra careful around kids and elderly folks. Newfoundlands bring a wonderful calming presence to patients and residents who require emotional support.
Besides your dog’s temperament and breed, therapy dogs must go through basic training in order to fit well into therapy work. So technically, dogs of any breed (including mixed breed) can become successful therapy dogs as a result of socialization, training, and a willingness to work with you. Dogs of all ages can also qualify for therapy work, provided they enjoy interacting with people and respond positively to attention.
Why it makes sense to monitor your therapy dog’s health
Because of repeated exposure, therapy dogs are vulnerable to the germs they pick from hospitals or care facilities. Which, left untreated, can result in bacterial infections and other harmful health problems that might even be deadly over time.
So if you’re considering training your dog to provide care in these environments, it makes sense to actively monitor their health and wellbeing. And one of the first signs a dog is sick? A change in their regular activity or sleep patterns – both of which can be easy to miss out.
So even if your therapy dog might seem happy and healthy, they’re always at risk for picking up harmful germs or allergens from a care environment. But here’s how Tractive pet parents around the world are taking action early on by monitoring their pet’s health – with regular activity and sleep tracking.
Tractive’s Wellness Monitoring features help you get a picture both of how active your dog is – and how much quality sleep they’re getting. So you can get your therapy dog the care they need if you notice a sudden change.
One of Tractive’s pet parents noticed a change in her dog’s sleep and activity patterns – and managed to catch on to a health problem just in time:
When I looked at Ruby’s Wellness profile, the data showed that her activity level was low and that she hadn’t slept well. I was concerned and watched her carefully.
Early the next morning, she had blood in her urine and was lethargic. We visited the emergency veterinarian, and Ruby was diagnosed with a UTI.
She received antibiotics and pain medication and is feeling much better. Her tracker data made me aware that she was not acting normally and that something could be wrong with her.
I love her tracker, and I will always have one for any dog I ever own.
Spreading care & comfort – one nuzzle at a time
From the gentle nuzzle of a therapy dog in a hospital room to their warm embrace of a crisis response dog in a disaster situation, therapy dogs have an immeasurable positive impact on our lives. They help remind us that even in difficult times, a wagging tail and comforting gaze has the power to heal wounds, mend hearts, and lift spirits. Therapy dogs can help remind us that a little kindness and companionship go a long way to making the world a brighter, happier place.
Want to see a therapy dog in action? Meet Gael, a cheerful Golden Retriever who’s a regular at the Memorial Regional Hospital, Florida:
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