Therapy Dogs

by Bruce W. Little, DVM



In my most recent article for this blog, I wrote about Service Dogs. Service dogs are those animals that perform a specific service for a designated individual. They serve to help a blind or vision impaired person lead a more mobile and complex life while serving as that person’s eyes. Service dogs are trained to perform many different tasks, such as, sniffing out bombs at airports and other transportation centers, or recognizing by smell the presence of bed bugs in a hotel setting. Search and Rescue dogs are service dogs that perform a specific function for first responders whose job it is to find and rescue individuals following a catastrophic event. In general, service dogs can be any breed or size and must have a fine sense of smell in order to perform up to certain standards in order to be most effective.

Therapy dogs, or animal-assisted therapy as it is sometimes called, requires a different set of skills and training than service dogs. Not only can any breed or size of dog qualify as a therapy dog, but there are many other animals that can serve to be therapy animals. Parrots are sometimes used in prison settings to become companions with the prisoner to teach the prisoner compassion and caring traits. Veterans Affairs hospitals have utilized parrots to serve as therapy birds and found them useful in reducing anxiety and other symptoms among patients being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Miniature horses were recently introduced to young patients at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and cats and kittens are frequently used to ease depression and loneliness at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. I can recall when we once sent thoroughbred race horses at the end of their racing careers to prisons and reform schools where the inmates were given the responsibility for caring and attending to the needs of those horses, eventually developing a bond that went far beyond being caretaker of the animal. Due to increased costs of keeping a horse today, very few governmental institutions can afford to utilize the full-sized horse for this purpose.

The early history of therapy dogs dates back to the 18th century. William Tuke, a businessman who believed in the moral treatment of psychiatric patients, opened the York Retreat in 1782 by allowing animals to roam in the Retreat’s courtyard. His philosophy was that patients who cared for the animals would learn self-control and progress in their healing. Further history credits Boris Levinson with adding canine-assisted therapy to a psychiatric program for children. He noticed that some children responded well to his own dog, and that his dog responded differently to the varying personalities of each child. Today, research indicates that therapy dogs provide a number of psychological and physical benefits for many types of patients including lowered blood pressure, relieved pain, suppression of anxiety and depression to mention a few. Benefits from these dog visits include increased self-esteem, verbal communications, social integration and relationships while helping others with signs of suppressing autism and emotionally disturbed people with diminished illness and an increased state of health. In a controlled-study of therapy dog visits among patients with heart disease, researchers at UCLA found a significant reduction in anxiety levels, and blood pressure in the heart and lungs among those who spent 12 minutes with a visiting animal, but no such effect occurred among comparable patients not visited by a dog. Studies have shown that after just 20 minutes with a therapy dog, patients’ levels of stress hormones drop and levels of pain-reducing endorphins rise. In older patients with dementia, depression declines after they interact with a therapy animal. And researchers at the University of Southern Maine showed that therapy dog visits can calm agitation in patients with severe dementia.

Therapy dogs must receive specialized training to carry out their tasks. While service dogs are trained to respond to the needs of a single individual, therapy dogs must be trained to interact with a wide variety of different people. Therapy dogs are trained over a period of time at home and while visiting outside facilities that have different people and other dogs in their presence. This training may last for several months before they can be taken as the primary visitor to a facility. When trained and certified by one of the several certifying organizations; such as, Therapy Dogs International, Alliance of Therapy Dogs or Project Canine these dogs after passing a health inspection and confirming that they have all their canine vaccinations up to date are allowed to visit healing facilities like assisted living communities, private homes with shut-ins, hospitals, libraries, nursing homes, hospices, schools, shelters and funeral homes. Unlike service dogs who have been approved by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to perform their duties on public transportation and in restaurants and other public buildings, therapy dogs must be invited by special arrangements to visit public facilities. Therapy dog training with the Good Dog Foundation requires several conditions to be met before a dog can be certified as an official therapy dog. Most hospitals and nursing facilities require therapy dog certification before they will allow a dog or any other animal into their facilities. The Good Dog Foundation therapy training program consists of a six week course that includes meeting with groups of four to eight couples, a dog and it’s master being a couple, for interactive sessions before qualifying for certification. The dog can be any size or breed, but must be housebroken; nonaggressive; fearless of strange people or loud noises; compatible with other dogs; be comfortable around wheelchairs or elevators and learn certain basic commands such as sit, stay, lie down and come. Good temperament is critical. A dog that barks incessantly, nips or jumps on people or cowers away from people would not be able to become certified.

Therapy Dogs International (TDI) is a volunteer organization dedicated to regulation, testing and registration of therapy dogs and their handlers. It is the largest and oldest therapy dog organization in the United States, now in its fortieth year of operation. In order to qualify for certification with TDI, a dog must pass eleven testing requirements established by TDI regarding temperament, training and sociability. The dog must be at least one year of age and have had all his necessary vaccinations and parasite control medications required by the group. The health form signed by a licensed veterinarian, evaluation form and picture of the dog must be sent to Therapy Dogs International with the current fee to be registered. Once these qualifications have been determined and the dog is certified, it and its master can then visit health care facilities, schools, churches, libraries, private homes, shelters and funeral homes upon invitation.

As the current president of the American Association of Senior Veterinarians (AASrV), I am very familiar and fond of a therapy dog named Josh and Friends. Josh is a beautiful Golden Retriever therapy dog and lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his veterinarian master, Dr. Randy Lange, and visits children’s hospitals all over the country. Josh (the third version of Josh and Friends) has been a therapy dog since the mid-1990’s and comes with a Josh kit that includes a plush Golden Retriever toy puppy and a children’s book, “I’ll Be O.K.” When Josh visits a hospital, a Josh Kit containing the plush puppy and book are given to each of the children he visits. The puppy accompanies the child throughout their daily routine of treatments, x-rays, visits to the laboratory and surgery prep areas. The child and puppy go through all the trials and tribulations of a hospital stay together. “When I first met Josh at an American Academy of Pediatrics meeting, it was love at first sight”, said Sharon Riesen, MD and administrator at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital in California. “Our volunteers are trained to deliver the Josh plush puppy and tell the story I’ll Be O.K. in a way that makes Josh come alive as a “therapeutic tool” which helps each child feel comforted and promotes his or her healing process.” Josh and Friends has recently developed in partnership with the American Legion Family, a new kit named G.I. Josh. The G.I. Josh kit goes to children whose parent or parents have been sent on military deployments throughout the world. The AASrV collects donated funds to support Josh and Friends to purchase the Josh Kits and distribute them to hospitals and military bases. The AASrV is a 501 C (3) not-for-profit organization so donations may be tax deductible. Go to http://www.aasrv.org to learn more about Josh and Friends and contribute to help purchase these kits for the children who have major medical issues or children whose parent or parents are deployed on a military mission.

Therapy dogs and other therapy animals are believed to have a profound benefit in the minds of most physicians, hospital administrators, school teachers, prison wardens and other administrators of various groups of individuals. Not only do these animals help to heal the patients or others with special needs, but research is beginning to tell us they bring benefit to the stressed out and over-burdened people who manage hospital patients, students and prisoners as well. Rush University Medical Center in Chicago has initiated a program for hospital staff nurses, aids, technicians and other hospital employees to interact on a regular basis with dogs they bring in from animal shelters or animal therapy groups. These therapy dogs are for the benefit of the overstressed employees, not the patients. Many companies have long learned that a weekly “bring your pet to work day” pays valuable dividends in accomplishing the work that needs to be done for the company. I suspect there are many more uses for man’s best friend in our daily lives as the human-animal bond thickens. Both the humans and the animals benefit by this bond.

For more information on therapy dogs and other therapy animals, go to:

American Association of Senior Veterinarians at http://www.aasrv.org

Josh and Friends at http://www.joshandfriends.com

Therapy Dogs International at http://www.tdi-dog.org

Alliance of Therapy Dogs at http://www.therapydogs.com

Good Dog Foundation at http://www.gooddogfoundation.org

Project Canine at http://www.projectcanine.org



Bruce W. Little, DVM