Anyone who has ever spent quality time in the company of a household pet can attest to the stress-relieving and mood-lifting benefits of having an animal around. We just cannot help but laugh and feel happy whenever we have our pet dog cuddling up to us in bed, on the couch, or when you have your feline friend crawling into your lap to lavish you those playful, wet kisses! But are you aware that keeping a pet, or being around one has been scientifically confirmed to have mental and physical health benefits in people? Therapeutic animal practices are a very good way for those who are experiencing stressful, lonely, or traumatic situations in their lives to share in the benefits of human-animal interaction, and dogs top the list of therapy animals. This article will highlight exactly what are therapy dogs, their benefits and how they differentiate from other working dogs.

therapy dogs on the grass

What Is Pet Therapy? 

Pet therapy is a form of guided interactions orchestrated between a patient and an animal that has been trained for the purpose. A handler becomes part of the interaction when necessary. The rationale for using pet therapy is to assist people to cope with or recover from health conditions, or even mental disorder. These dogs come under three categories. We have therapy dogs, emotional support dogs, as well as certified service dogs.

What is a Therapy Dog? 

A therapy dog is a term used to describe dogs that are trained to provide comfort, affection, as well as love to those in hospitals, nursing homes, retirement homes,  hospices, schools, or even disaster areas. Usually, therapy dogs are neither assistance dog, nor are they service dogs. However, they have been known to function as either of both in some organizations.

For a dog to qualify to be granted the therapy dog title by the American Kennel Club Therapy Dog, it needs to be social with strangers as well as calm and they should exhibit the ability to adjust to fast movements and loud noises. It also needs to undergo specific training steps. – the initial step is the socialization process to get the canine to become free and relaxed in the company of humans and other animals. They still need to undergo tests to be either Pet Partner certified or AKC certified. Their test focuses on demeanors like being capable of taking walks on a loose leash and take no jumping commands. Upon gaining the status, the pups get signed up for several training classes. The debut class, dubbed distraction-proofing class, aids the canine in becoming focused. The therapy training class comes last, and at this stage, both dog and adopter are readied for therapy visits.

Canines used as therapy dogs are not limited to specific breeds or sizes, some of the most common breeds include the Labradors and Golden Retrievers. These dogs offer patients and people with a plethora of benefits, for instance, they assist patients to take part in physical activities, encouraging them to have social, cognitive, as well as communication goals.

What is a Service Dog?

Service dogs, on the other hand, are not seen as pets. Rather, they are usually trained for a specific purpose. Dogs working with the police can perform various tasks and guard dogs are usually used to protect people or objects. They usually have a deterrent effect and are intended to prevent people from barking, for example, to enter a building or to enter a locked area.

Other dogs are used as detection dogs. They are used, for example, when a suspect has fled into rough terrain or hid in the dark. Additionally, some dogs are also able to detect explosives and weapons as well as drugs and thus help the officials in their work.

Service Dog vs Therapy Dog vs Emotional Support Dogs

Now that we have established the major differences between service dogs and therapy dogs, let’s take a look at another type referred to as ‘emotional support dog’. An emotional support dog offers its owner an invaluable service whilst also bringing them comfort. No doubt, any animal can be an emotionally supportive animal, but because dogs have such a strong emotional bond with their owners (and since so many people already have puppies as pets), they are by far the most common. However, a common misconception about these types of dogs is that anyone can have one. But, just like service dogs and therapy dogs, they come with a prescription from the doctor.

On the topic of protection, although the terms “therapy dog” and ‘’emotional support dog’’ are defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Federal Housing Act in the US, they do not enjoy the cover or protection of these acts, neither are they equipped with public access rights with the exception of the specific locations that they are working or visiting. Thus, therapy dogs and emotional support dogs don’t get the same treatment as service animals and don’t have the right to the same privileges afforded to service animals. In general, the only right granted to therapy dogs comes from individual facilities. However, they earned the American Kennel Club Therapy Dog title.

Types of Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are categorized under three classifications, most common among them are:

  • The Therapeutic Visitation Dogs: They usually come as household pets and are taken to nursing homes, hospitals, or rehabilitation homes by their adopters to visit patients. Their job is to aid in improving the patients’ mental health through encouragement and socialization.
  • AAT (Animal-Assisted Therapy Dogs): This is the second set of therapy dogs, and the ones that are categorized under this group function to provide patients with assistance in attaining specific goals towards regaining good health. Their main job is to aid sick people in returning to good health conditions like the use of their limbs, motor skills, as well as hand-eye coordination. These dogs achieve this by walking the ailing people through specific games and activities, which in turn, helps them in practicing these skills. This category of therapy dogs can be found in rehabilitation facilities, which are usually their base.
  • Facility Therapy Dog: This is the last category among the therapy dogs. You can find them working in nursing homes alongside their handlers. They are permanent residents of these facilities and are mainly used for Alzheimer’s disease suffer, as well as people with other mental and cognitive illnesses.

Benefits Of Pet Therapy

  • Psychological

Animal Assisted Therapy is one proven way to solving several psychological health problems like depression, anxiety, social skills, or simply to aid in improving a patient’s mood. In academic settings, we have witnessed further psychological advantages of therapy dog programs like providing companionship, comfort, and serving as a distraction to unwelcoming thoughts or situations. In addition, it can reduce resistance, speed up the development of connections or relationships in the therapy process, and can help patients to feel a bit more comfortable when they find themselves in a new situation.

  • Managing stress

After the infamous shooting that resulted in the death of 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, therapy dogs were brought in on the 14th of December 2012 to provide both parents and pupils with comfort. Also, the killings involving 32 people in Virginia Tech shooting, which happened in Blacksburg, Virginia called for the services of therapy dogs in offering comfort to the faculty, students, and staff of the institution.

  • Cognitive

There are programs like R.E.A.D (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) that are targeted at promoting communication skills as well as literacy. The practice employs the services of therapy dogs in encouraging kids to read out loud and equipping them with a nonjudgmental listener. This practice has yielded a positive result, especially in kids with special needs – their enthusiasm for reading and academic performance was shown to have increased with the introduction of the therapeutic dogs. The main aim of these reading programs that are tagged ‘Dog Assisted’ is to grant kids with reading difficulties an opportunity to read out loud to dogs that are not likely to pass judgment on them, unlike humans. Another goal of this program is to intensify the motivation to read, enhance reading fluency, make reading a fun thing, and serve as an encouragement to those who are reluctant readers. Other cognitive advantages of using therapy dogs include assistance in memory recall and sequence of events and increased mental stimulation.

  • Physical

Cardiovascular health has been shown to improve with the introduction of therapy dogs; thus, less medication is needed. With the reduction of stress in patients that were previously feeling anxious, their rate of breathing will slow down. Interactions with these therapeutic dogs encourage the release of specific hormones like prolactin, serotonin, oxytocin, which function to elevate moods. What’s more, occupational therapy can improve a patient’s fine motor skills, findings have revealed reduced cortisol levels in kids having autistic spectrum disorder and insecure attachment style, in the healthcare professionals themselves and in patients admitted with heart failure after interacting with therapy dogs.

Therapy dog with owner

  • Social

Interactions with therapy dogs have proved effective in promoting enhanced self-esteem in children and students as well as encouraging some level of positivity in their interactions with teachers and peers. In addition, autistic kids displayed improved social interaction and verbal abilities at their therapy sessions while animals were present relative to the normal traditional therapy sessions they do without them.

Olivia Williams
Olivia is our head of content for MyPetNeedsThat.com, mum of one and a true animal lover. With 12 different types of animal in her family, it's never a dull moment. When she isn't walking the dogs, feeding the cats or playing with her pet Parrot Charlie, you will find her product researching and keeping the site freshly updated with the latest products for your pets!

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