Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs: What Are They and Why Are They Important?

Therapy dogs are used in a wide variety of environments and circumstances but, broadly speaking, they are dogs whose presence is designed to help alleviate stress, promote feelings of well-being and sometimes help with a process of rehabilitation or healing in humans other than their owners.

Physical contact with dogs has been shown to help relieve anxiety and promote feelings of well-being 

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

Sometimes people can be confused about the differences between a therapy dog and a service dog.  

Whilst both dogs will go through some training, the training of a service dog is much more rigorous and is designed to allow the dog to support their owner perform tasks in everyday life that can provide challenging as a result of a disability or other specific condition.

Service dogs can include Guide Dogs for the Blind, Hearing Dogs for the Deaf, Diabetic Alert Dogs, Seizure Alert Dogs, Autism Support Dogs, Psychiatric Service Dogs and more.

With most service dogs they should not be petted by strangers whilst they are working as this can put them off the task at hand.  They are generally given access to most public spaces, will be certified to do their job and will usually be wearing a service dog vest when out in public.

Therapy dogs don’t have to go through the same type of training, they are often just general pet dogs that enjoy the company of humans that get a little extra training before they can begin their work.  They usually accompany their owner to certain agreed places to allow them to actively interact with other individuals that may be needed some additional emotional support.

Some examples of the types of work that a Therapy Dog will do include visiting schools to help children gain the confidence to read out loud, or visiting nursing homes to encourage engagement from residents with dementia or just provide some extra comfort and contact if people are lonely.  They may visit palliative care wards in hospitals to offer some quiet comfort and affection to people dealing with terminal illnesses.

A service dog is different to a therapy dog in that they provide specific trained support to an individual and they will have tougher training requirements, will wear a service dog vest and will be allowed to accompany their owner into certain public spaces where dogs are usually prohibited 

How Were Therapy Dogs First Introduced?

Whilst dogs have been offering comfort and support to humans for as long as they have been domesticated, it was only in the 1970s when a more formal arrangement started to be put into place.

The first organisation to set up something on a more structured basis was Therapy Dogs International after a nurse, Elaine Smith, coaxed some dog obedience competitors to bring their dogs into the nursing home she was working in.  The organisation is still running today, on a much bigger basis, and there are a number of other registered organisation that operate under similar principles all across the world.

The first visits were met with some incredulity and not a little bit of scepticism and ridicule in some cases.  Since then though there have been a number of scientifically backed studies that have shown the benefits for the participants in these schemes and they have grown in popularity and success.  There are now over 50,000 registered therapy dogs in the US alone.

What Does the Research Tell Us?

There have been a number of studies conducted in recent years that provide encouraging information about the benefits of Therapy Dogs when introduced appropriately.  A study published by the American Journal of Critical Care in 2007, for example,  looked at the introduction of therapy Dogs to a group of people hospitalized as a result of heart failure.  They look at two groups of patients, those that did not have access to the therapy dogs and those that did. The study showed that those that had interactions with the therapy dogs saw a marked improvement in their blood pressure and neurohormone levels and they had reduced anxiety.  

And it is not just the humans who benefit. Providing the dog has been correctly assessed as suitable to work as a therapy dog and the interactions are appropriate, then the dogs are also shown to enjoy the experience.  There have been concerns about how much stress a dog may be put under in these scenarios but, encouragingly, a study that was published in the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science in 2018, showed positive results suggesting that dog’s providing animal-assisted interventions in a hospitalised setting did not show any significant increase in signs of stress.  If the dog has been appropriately selected and the interactions are carefully managed it can be a very enjoyable experience for the dog too.

Receiving affection and contact from a dog has been shown to reduce blood pressure and anxiety levels 

What Are the Benefits of Therapy Dogs to Those They Visit?

For those receiving a visit from a therapy dog, the benefits can be far reaching.  

Therapy dogs are now regular visitors to certain schools.  They have been shown to help children improve their reading skills as they read out loud to their canine friends, they can help promote relaxation and calm behaviour when amongst a group of children and they can also provide additional support and comfort to children with additional support needs.  They also teach little children the importance of being kind and compassionate to other species.

Therapy dogs are also regular visitors to certain hospitals.  They have been known to have a comforting, anxiety reducing impact on patients dealing with difficult illnesses and when they visit children’s wards they often spread great joy and laughter, providing a distraction from pain and discomfort too.

Therapy dogs are also regular visitors to nursing homes for the elderly.  It is not unusual to see a resident that is normally non-communicative and depressed light up when the dog arrives and they will often have a greater level of interaction than they would at any other time.

They can also encourage increased mobility if they are having a ball thrown for them or perhaps they may be taken for a walk.

Therapy dogs have recently been introduced within some senior schools and universities during exam season.  By allowing the students to spend time petting the dogs, this has been shown to reduce anxiety levels and help increase productivity and concentration in advance of their next exam.

Therapy dogs also sometimes visit inmates in correctional facilities.  They have been shown to have a positive impact on inmates mental health, often making them feel more calm and willing to engage socially and it provides them with a safe and non-judgemental relationship.  There have also been successful initiatives within prisons where the inmates take on the responsibility of training puppies to become service dogs and these have been shown to have extremely positive benefits for the inmates involved.

Therapy dogs have even been introduced successfully in disaster relief areas.  The dogs can often bring much-needed comfort to individuals that have lost family, those that are displaced and also the service people that are dealing with extremely distressing scenarios.

Therapy dogs have been used in disaster relief areas to help comfort those that have been displaced and the service people that are working under stressful conditions 

How Do You Know If Your Dog Would Be Suited to Animal-Assisted Therapy Duties?

Not every dog is suited to becoming a therapy dog but if they are relaxed when being exposed to new, often busy or noisy environments and they are well socialised and actively seek out the company and contact of other people, including children, then they may get as much out of it as those they are visiting.

It doesn’t matter what breed, shape or size your dog is.  As long as they have the sort of temperament that would suit this sort of activity and a good basic level of training then it is certainly something worth considering.  Sometimes competitive obedience or agility dogs that have retired due to old age move on to become therapy dogs. They are still getting stimulation and a ‘job’ to do but it is much less physically demanding for them.

There are a number of bully breed rescue dogs that have gone on to be fantastic therapy dogs. Not only are they great ambassadors for their breed, helping to dispel some of the long-held stereotypical negative reactions towards them, but they are also helping educate people on the importance of dog adoption too.

There are a number of great bully breed dogs working as therapy dogs that are fantastic ambassadors for their breed 

Why Not All Dogs Make Good Therapy Dogs?

Even if your dog does love people it does not mean that they will make a great therapy dog.  There are some dogs that it wouldn’t be fair to ask them to do this sort of activity and those that may love it but they would not be providing the most benefit to those they are visiting.  It is not a poor reflection on your dog, it just means that you should look for some other sort of activity that suits their temperament more.

If you have a dog that is nervous around people whether that be men, children, strangers etc, not only could it pose a risk to the individuals they are visiting if the dog feels uncomfortable but it also would not be fair on your dog.

There are some that may love people but are nervous in new or noisy environments.  Again it would be unfair to expect your dog to tolerate this. It does not mean your dog could never be a therapy dog but you would need to work on trying to reduce their anxieties before considering anything further.

Some dogs love people but they are extremely high energy and find it difficult to stay focussed and calm when meeting new friends or being in new and distracting environments.

It is important to be extremely honest with yourself about whether your dog would have the desire to be involved in this sort of activity and, if they did, whether they can behave appropriately too.  It is not fair on anyone involved if not.

Some dogs may enjoy it at first but, if they have a negative experience or they have just had enough, it is also important to know when it is time to move on.  Knowing your dog, reading their body language and not pushing them into situations they are uncomfortable in is extremely important.

If you have a very vocal dog or one that can be mischievous, excitable or nervous around strangers then they will likely not be suited to being a therapy dog

How Can Your Dog Become a Therapy Dog?

So, if you have decided that you think your dog would thrive on being involved as a therapy pet then it is time for you to get in touch with an official animal-assisted therapy organization.  There are a number of these across the country and you will have to do your research, work out which ones work in your area and decide if you want to apply. They all have slightly different criteria and opportunities.

Your dog will have to undergo an assessment to evaluate their temperament, general obedience and behaviour skills and also to check their health records and paperwork (all dogs will need to have vaccinations and worming and flea treatments).

If your dog doesn’t pass the assessment, don’t take it personally or feel that your dog is not worthy.  Remember that the criteria is strict and it doesn’t mean you have a bad dog, just one that perhaps does not have the traits for this sort of activity.  Sometimes it may also just be that you need to work on a particular aspect of their behaviour to allow you to re-apply. Maybe they jump up when excited, for example, and this was the only thing that caused concern for the assessor.  This can be an easy habit to break with a little extra training.

If your dog has good basic obedience skills and is calm around people and likes their company then they may be ideal candidate to go through a therapy dog assessment 

And It Is Not Just Dogs. There Are Lots of Other Animals Involved as Therapets

Dogs are the most common species involved in animal assisted therapy but there are an increasing number of other animals that are involved too.

Horses are increasingly being used as a form of therapy.  Sometimes it may be through riding but it can also be through the process of grooming and physical contact.  There are even some horses that have visited nursing homes or hospital wards.

Equine Therapy has had proven success in supporting recovering addicts, veterans with mental health problems and children with autism, amongst others.

Sometimes small animals like rabbits and guinea pigs are also used as therapy animals.  They can be easier to handle and transport and, if people are scared of bigger animals, like dogs, this can be a great alternative.  Obviously, as with the dogs, it has to be an animal that enjoys being handled, is well socialised and is not frightened by the new, often noisy, environment.

Equine therapy is becoming an increasingly popular way of supporting children or adults with mental health illness or additional needs

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