A Complete Guide to Therapy Dogs

The bond between canine and man reaches into antiquity. Ancient people began the canine domestication process roughly 10,000 years ago and used canines to support hunting trips. Only recently, people began to understand how powerful the bond truly is; recent studies show that canines feel empathy for their human companions. The canine's ability to care for people contributes to a relatively new trend: canines working in the field of human therapy. They deliver comfort, reassurance and stress relief. They reduce blood pressure, rouse depressed people from their beds and offer a source of self-esteem.

Therapy dogs—not to be confused with service dogs—receive specialized training to carry out their tasks. Multiple types exist, but generally, a trained therapy canine delivers therapeutic service in hospitals, schools and psychiatric facilities, to name a few. On the other hand, Service dogs provide direct assistance to a designated individual. They help the vision impaired "see," open doors for the disabled or retrieve dropped objects for someone in a wheelchair. Most notably, the Americans with Disabilities Act covers service dogs; the law affords service dogs specific rights, such as using public transportation and this is often where therapy dogs and service dogs differ.

what are therapy dogs

What Are Therapy Dogs?

People commonly confuse therapy dogs with service dogs. To really understand what therapy dogs are, you first need to know service dogs are trained to help a specific handler’s unique disabilities. A service dog helps people live independently and safely. Because of their vital job, service dogs can enter grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, and other places where animals normally aren’t allowed. Most service dogs only interact with their handler, which means other people aren’t allowed to pet them.

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, perform services to people who aren’t their handler. They’re very social and work with a whole range of people. You’ll find therapy dogs in hospitals, assisted living centers, schools, and even libraries. But therapy dogs cannot enter grocery stores, restaurants, or other establishments if policies don’t allow them.

In many cases, the handler for a therapy dog is the actual owner. The dog is that person’s pet, and the two either volunteer or the human works at the facility the dog routinely visits. There are a few cases where a therapy dog’s handler is a specialized professional, such as in a psychiatric care unit.

They're a special breed. They demonstrate a sound temperament and above-average obedience. The therapy canine provides a connection to the world for people experiencing withdrawal, physical or mental illness or disability. Trainers teach these dogs to allow unfamiliar people close contact in a therapeutic environment. Generally, a professional trainer escorts a therapy dog to a designated facility and allows the animal to spend time with patients.

History

Believe it or not, animal-assisted therapy dates all the way back the ancient Greeks. Back then it was mostly horses helping people who were seriously ill to feel better. That practice was still going strong in the 1600s.

Later, William Tuke, a businessperson who believed in the moral treatment of psychiatric patients, opened the York Retreat in 1792. He allowed small 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.

Florence Nightingale noticed back in the 1800s the usefulness of small pets in cutting down on anxiety in psychiatric patients he was treating. The Nobel laureate in Physiology from Austria developed a theory about the bond between humans and animals, emphasizing people’s connection with nature to manage their lives properly.

The American Red Cross in the 1940s used farm animals to treat war veterans. The patients who were being treated for serious injuries or illness would care for the animals as a way to speed up their recovery. Doctors decided the greatest benefit of this was getting the veterans’ minds off the ravages of war and their own suffering.

The famous Sigmund Freud also uses his dog in his practice. He believed his dog would determine the real character of his patients. The pooch was also useful in calming down patients with anxiety.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that formal research on animal therapy started, thanks to Boris Levinson. Levinson used canine-assisted therapy in a psychiatric program for children. He noticed that some children responded well to his dog Jingles. In addition, Jingles responded differently to the varying personalities of each child. He also noted some patients would be more likely to interact with his pooch than other humans.

Today, research indicates that these dogs provide a number of psychological and physical benefits for multiple types of patients. Many studies have linked owning a pet to improved cardiovascular health, increased happiness, and longer lifespans.

Classifications

There are three main types of therapy dogs. You’re probably most familiar with the first, called therapeutic visitation dogs. Like the name suggests, their owners take the dogs to visit facilities as a way to lift patients’ spirits.

Facility therapy dogs are usually found in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. They live in the facility and help people there with mental impairments such as Alzheimer’s stay safe. A member of the staff at the facility acts as the dog’s handler.

Finally, animal assisted therapy dogs work with occupational and physical therapists to help patients with recovery from an injury. They benefit patients by refining eye-hand coordination, increasing motion in limbs, and regaining fine motor control.

training for therapy dogs

Training for Therapy Dogs

Just like training for any dog, both the handler and dog must learn to work together. The dog must respond to basic commands like sit and stay, even when there are distractions like children or sudden noises.

Several organizations provide training, testing, certification, and registration for therapy dogs, such as Therapy Dogs International and Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

Training takes place for both the handler and canine. Consequently, the training process offers a double whammy: incorporation of therapy through the training process. For example, some prison programs offer inmates the opportunity to train these dogs, which in turn delivers a source of meaning and value for the inmate.

In general, therapy dog training and certification requires that the handler and animal meet basic, minimum requirements. The handler must possess sound moral character and control of the canine. Canine trainers teach them basic obedience (sit, stay, come etc.), acceptance of strangers, distraction handling, tolerance of medical equipment and devices, confidence with people with disabilities and appropriate behavior with children.

Additional Information

While people use many animals to deliver therapeutic assistance, the dog is the most common. Consequently, multiple organizations offer training resources, guidance and publications that support the development of training programs or the traits common in therapeutic dogs.

Many organizations help with getting a therapy dog certified or registered. People interested in turning their pets into therapy dogs can work with several organizations to develop the skills required for the job in themselves and their animals.