The number of therapy dogs is rising by the day. More and more professionals and volunteers are harnessing the amazing attributes of dogs into a powerful tool to help people overcome their obstacles.
The world can be a terrifying place. It can be scary, overwhelming and lonely. It can give us little reason to trust that life has anything more to offer than darkness and pain. People fail us, our bodies fail us, and ever so often, our minds fail us. They turn against us, and no matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to find our way back. It’s when we find ourselves here, that man’s best friend changes everything. They saunter in, smiling, tail wagging, and miraculously make everything seem better.
There is a reason why dogs have been our companions for thousands of years. The human-animal bond is one that never wavers, even when everything else does. Dogs are exceptionally good at being forgiving, loyal, and loving. They are the best and most efficient bringers of joy, comfort, and companionship. It’s just what they do!
What is a Therapy Dog?
A therapy dog is a dog of any breed or size, who shares their innate goodness with people. They always have a gentle, calm, and kind temperament, and love interacting with people. Their job descriptions are about as diverse as that of their assistance dog counterparts. Their work, however, is no less important. They are trained to help people in different settings, with different things.
What Therapy Dogs Do:
In a nutshell: They help people. Therapy dogs help different people in different ways. All of the work that therapy dogs do can be explained by the terms “Animal-Assisted Intervention” or “Animal-Assisted Interaction (AAI).’ These “interventions” or “interactions” generally fall under one or more of three categories:
1. Animal-Assisted Activities (or Therapeutic Visitation)
Dogs who do therapeutic visitations are the most common type of therapy dogs. Their owners are volunteers who take them to visit facilities with people who might benefit from having some quality doggo time.
They visit hospitals, nursing homes, community centers, and shelters in order to cheer people up. The people spending time in these facilities are often in need of a little light in their lives, which is exactly what these visits provide. A good distraction and a lifted spirit can go a long way to make people feel better.
For a child, a hospital time is seldom considered a fun time. It can be scary and lonely, but therapy dogs shower these children with tons of love and puppy cuddles.
Some therapy dogs visit schools and libraries to help the kiddos boost their confidence and work on their reading skills. Confidence is not a given for everyone. Luckily, dogs are the least judgmental beings on this earth. Many children find it easier to practice reading out loud to a dog.
There are a growing number of airports across the U.S. which employ therapy dogs (or in some cases pigs). The aim is to help calm down passengers. Therapy dogs help minimize stress and anxiety levels for those who find travel particularly overwhelming.
Another place where therapy dogs really show their value is in disaster areas. Whether the disaster is natural or man-made, the moment therapy dogs arrive on the scene, a sense of comfort reaches even those in the deepest of despair. To many, these dogs represent hope.
Court Room Visits
Some therapy dogs visit court rooms to lend courage and comfort. They offer a sense of safety to those who have to relive traumatic events and testify against their abusers.
Some therapy dog handlers visit funeral homes with their dogs. The hope and intention being that their presence provides comfort to those who feel consumed by loss, grief, and sadness.
The empowering reach of these therapy dogs is endless.
2. Animal-Assisted Therapy
Therapy dogs involved in animal-assisted therapy (AAT) usually function in a more formal and professional setting. Their role in the therapeutic process is more structured and intentional. They have specific goals to achieve, and in this process, a supervisor monitors and documents everything.
These dogs have all been registered and will have received training according to the tasks they should perform.
Physio-therapists, doctors, occupational therapists, social workers, mental health professionals, and speech therapists are some of the more common professionals who believe that their patients benefit from interacting with dogs.
Therapy dogs can help someone recover motor function due to a traumatic brain injury. Grooming, petting, walking, or playing with a dog can help move the process along in a fun and motivational setting. It’s easy to get frustrated with oneself and give up. One cannot however deny an adorable dog of a walk or a game of fetch. After all. that would be rather selfish!
The contribution therapy dogs can make to help the healing process of someone struggling with a mental illness is invaluable. They physically lower stress and anxiety levels, and provide a judgement-free, safe space for people to heal. Perhaps, someone has trouble speaking about their traumatic past. Or they are in the deepest, darkest pit of depression. Therapy dogs can draw them out of that darkness and show them the light.
Veterans are further examples of people who benefit from animal-assisted therapy. Not every veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder is in the position to have their own service animal or emotional support animal. If their therapist however has a therapy dog, those veterans will receive the benefits of an emotional support animal without having to fully adopt a pet.
Animal assisted therapy is also very popular with professionals working with patients who need long-term care. Autistic people or people living with Alzheimer disease or dementia often respond very well to therapy with dogs. There are many studies showing the positive effect of therapy dogs on people with these conditions.
These are but a few examples of the people who benefit from animal-assisted therapy.
3. Animal-Assisted Education
Animal-assisted education (AAE) is a lot like AAT in that both are structured, goal-oriented, and documented forms of therapy. The focus of AAE however, is purely therapy within the realm of education. The dogs in the AAE world help students achieve academic goals, improve their social skills, and improve general cognitive functions.
Note: Animal-assisted interventions are often (incorrectly) referred to as “pet therapy”. The term “pet therapy” was used for certain animal training programs in the past. It’s no longer applicable to the modern world of animal-assisted therapy.
How to Get a Therapy Dog
You don’t really “get” a therapy dog. It’s more a process of assessing whether a dog has the right temperament. Then you train them according to what you want them to do, and finally, get them registered.
Unlike with the process of getting a service dog (also called an assistance dog), getting a therapy dog to the stage where you can have them certified and take part in animal-assisted activities is relatively easy (and inexpensive).
What Makes a Good Therapy Dog: Therapy Dog Requirements
What makes a good therapy dog? A dog who WANTS to be a therapy dog.
The list of requirements for a therapy dog is not a long one. Most dogs innately possess the character traits and abilities that are so incredibly therapeutic and beneficial to us humans. Owners do need to be sure though, that their dogs will have a good time going out and meeting people. A scared or skittish dog can be unpredictable, which partnered with unpredictable settings and people, is a recipe for disaster.
Is your dog calm, gentle, and confident, with a hint of goofball on the side? Then things are looking very promising for you both!
If you can check these boxes, you and your dog have all the makings of a mean, light bringing team:
A Good Temperament
A good temperament is the most important of all requirements. Therapy dogs should be empathetic and easily adjust to the energy of the people they are meeting. Calm. Gentle. Kind. These are some of the things to look for in a potential therapy dog’s temperament. If you’re a movie buff, think Lassie or Shadow from Homeward Bound. They always know what people need.
Be Well Desensitized
Therapy dogs need to feel comfortable in just about any setting. Consider the pediatric ward in a hospital. There are children shouting, equipment beeping, and doctors and nurses wearing masks. During most therapeutic visitations, it’s easy for your senses to get overloaded, but therapy dogs should not get spooked. They need to be the calm in the storm.
Be Well Socialized
Most therapy dogs and their handlers will have joined a therapy dog organization. These organizations facilitate and coordinate volunteer teams in their communities. There are often multiple teams who go to the same facility together, and everyone needs to get along. The last thing anyone needs is a dog fight in a place that is scary enough as it is.
Enjoy Being Approached (and Touched) by Strangers
Some of the people your dog will interact with might be quite rough or clumsy when handling your dog. Your therapy dog needs to enjoy all of the attention and affection. Otherwise, this might not be the path for them!
All therapy dogs will need to be trained in basic obedience to be allowed to work in any facility. Depending on what you want your dog to do, the level of training required will differ. This is especially important for younger therapy dogs and dogs that generally get easily excited. This applies to big dogs and small dogs! A big, happy, excited Golden Retriever jumping up on someone in frail care can have devastating consequences. As can the aftermath of a small dog jumping up and scratching the paper-thin skin of an elderly person. Many young puppies will not tick the “obedient” box. Still, you can always start training them, and lay the foundation for a future career as a therapy dog.
All of the people! Dogs are generally so much better at dealing with people than their human counterparts. Hence the existence of therapy dogs! But your dog needs to LOVE people. You’ll quickly realize after a few visits to different facilities which one your dog enjoys most. Maybe they just LOVE children, or the calm, loving company of the elderly. As long as they love meeting and cheering people up, you’re good to go!
There is no requirement for a therapy dog to be of a specific breed. ANYTHING goes, from mutt to pedigree, and from Chihuahua to Great Dane. What matters is, well, what we’ve just covered!
A therapy dog’s size will, however, determine what they will do during the visit. Small dogs can snuggle onto a lap or a hospital bed for some solid cuddle time. Bigger dogs will often be taught to rest their chins on people’s laps in order for the person in need to pet them.
Dogs with disabilities can make some of the best therapy dogs. A disabled person can benefit from the love of any dog, but interacting with a dog who has a disability creates a connection and relatability which doesn’t occur in other interactions.
Just be sure that your dog wants to be a therapy dog as much as you want them to. Not every dog is therapy dog material. Never try to force them into it because you will inevitably be setting them up to fail.
Therapy Dog Training
Some dogs will stay “down” on the floor for the duration of a visit. Others may be required to perform any number of tasks, which will of course require more specific training.
Therapy dogs receive training according to what their owners or handlers want them to do. All therapy dogs however need at least some training. Basic obedience is a must, and many organizations require your dog to complete specific courses. The American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Good Citizen Program is a popular choice.
Some of the most common things therapy dogs need to prove they can do are:
- Walk on a leash
- Remain calm and focused in crowds
- Allow people to touch and groom them
- Remain focused despite distractions (think cyclists or mail men)
- Come when owner calls
- Remain focused in the presence of other dogs
- Stay calmly with another handler without showing separation anxiety
Training your dog in basic obedience is always a great idea. Regardless of whether or not they end up being therapy dogs. Training with your dog will strengthen your bond and deepen your relationship with them.
The Most Popular Therapy Dog Breeds
Although therapy dogs come in all shapes and sizes, there are a few breeds that (generally) make excellent therapy dogs.
Based on the breed’s reputation and tendency to possess many of the character traits required of good therapy dogs, as well as of having the right temperament, many dogs of the following breeds make excellent therapy dogs:
- Bichon Frise
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
- French Bulldog
- Maltese Poodle
- Miniature Poodle
- Yorkshire Terrier
- Border Collie
- German Shepherd
- Golden Retriever
- Irish Setter
- Labrador Retriever
- Saint Bernard
- Shetland Sheepdog
Therapy Dog Benefits
The science is there. There are thousands of articles and studies substantiating and explaining how animal-assisted interactions set processes in motion which can affect every part of our being in a positive way.
Mental Benefits of Therapy Dogs
- Raised spirits and inspire confidence and a higher self-esteem in people who would otherwise not be open or receptive to therapy or interacting with other people
- Decreased stress and anxiety levels
- Less depressive feelings
- Decreased feeling of loneliness or isolation
- Offer distraction and prevent people from inward fixation and obsessive tendencies
- Improved social skills and behavioural problems
- Improved mental stimulation
- They make people laugh
Physical Benefits of Therapy Dogs
- Raised levels of a range of happy and feel-good hormones: Serotonin, Oxytocin, Prolactin, Beta-Phenylethylamine and Beta-Endorphins
- Lowered heart rate and therefore the blood pressure
- Lowered cortisol (stress hormone) levels
- Improved motor function
- Improved fitness level
Therapy dogs have such a big impact on the health and well-being of the people they interact with. In fact, some people heal to the point where they no longer require medications they previously depended on.
The benefits of therapy dogs range from a tiny boost in confidence for a child who is struggling in school, to a life changing breakthrough with an autistic child whose first words are said to the dog. Either way, these dogs are miracle workers and their therapeutic benefits are no joke!
Therapy Dog Certification vs. Therapy Dog Registration
When it comes to therapy dogs, the term “certified” is synonymous with “registered”.
Although, technically every dog could do therapeutic visitations, most facilities require the dog to be registered (or certified) before being allowed to visit. Mostly because of liability concerns.
Volunteers who want to take their dogs on visitations, will generally join a group (often a non-profit organization) who will guide them through the process of getting their dog registered.
Therapy Dog International and Other Wonderful Therapy Dog Organizations
The world of therapy dogs (especially therapeutic visitation dogs) depends solely on volunteer organizations. Luckily, there are many organizations which operate all over the U.S..
These organizations guide volunteers through the process of getting their dog registered, as well as facilitating and co-coordinating visits once dogs have their seal of approval. The standards of all therapy dog organizations need to be self-regulated, so it is important to join a reputable group, preferably one approved by the American Kennel Club, so that your pooch might one day become an AKC Therapy Dog.
Larger, more established groups or organizations will usually have a long list of animal-assisted activities which volunteers can choose to participate in. Dog-handler-teams can opt for any activity for which they think they are well suited. Additionally, they can choose to support any cause that they feel strongly about.
The Power of the Therapy Dog Vest
Some people might believe that the therapy dog vest is not as powerful as that of a service dog or of an emotional support dog. They could not be more wrong. Unlike service dogs, and to a degree, emotional support dogs, therapy dogs cannot be in public places. They can only enter specific areas and facilities with prior agreement.
Still. The therapy dog vest is a powerful representation. One therapy dog can can have a massive impact on so many lives. Their importance should never be dismissed!
Whether you are merely curious, flipping through a handbook on animal-assisted therapy, or you are ready to commit and go all in, everyone should at least consider certifying their pup as a therapy dog! You will absolutely love partnering up with your dog to share amazing therapeutic benefits and unconditional love with people who are not fortunate enough to have their own dog.
Therapy Dog FAQs:
Illustrations inspired by our furry friend Lottie! If you want to see your dog turned into an illustration, email [email protected]!