Introduction to Therapy Dogs and Other Therapy Animals
What’s the difference? Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs and Therapy Dogs
About this Page
I created this website to help those interested in sharing the love and healing power of their animal with those in need. It is heart-warming work, and we are helpless in our efforts to give more than we receive.
I suggest you begin by reading Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs and Therapy Dogs, as there is much confusion over these terms. And for those who want to volunteer with their animal, Getting Started with Pet Partners gives step-by-step instructions on how to become a registered Pet Partners team.
I’d be happy to help you with any questions.
What Is a Therapy Animal?
This website was named TherapyDogInfo only because most therapy animals are dogs. Therapy animals can also be cats, birds, guinea pigs, pot-bellied pigs, rabbits, horses, llamas and alpacas. And rats!
Whatever the breed or species, a therapy animal’s most important characteristic is its temperament. They are friendly, gentle and patient, and at ease with strangers.
Therapy animals must enjoy human contact and excessive petting, and be comfortable around healthcare equipment. Therapy animals that are normally trained, such as dogs and horses, must have mastered basic obedience.
Therapy animals are best known for bringing comfort, affection and happiness to people in confined living situations, whether they are in a hospital for a short stay or living in an assisted living home.
But therapy animals also serve in many other capacities, including helping people with learning difficulties, assisting medical professionals in providing mental and physical therapy to their clients, and by bringing comfort to people recovering from crisis.
In all their activities, therapy animals provide unconditional acceptance to those they visit.
The Healing Effects of Therapy Animals
Spending time with animals produces marked improvements in humans, affecting the physical, mental, emotional and social aspects of their well-being.
Stress leads to an overproduction of stress hormones, and in-turn increased blood pressure, heart rate, and chance of heart attack and stroke. As you will see in the list, below, a visit with a therapy animal does much to reverse the effects of stress.
Visiting with an animal can reduce anxiety without the need for medication, or elicit positive reminiscing in clients with progressed dementia. Therapy animal teams frequently witness measurable improvements as well, for example in visiting with chemotherapy patients in order to lower their blood pressure to a level acceptable for treatment.
Here are just some of the healing effects of therapy animal visits:
- Decrease in stress and anxiety, including that from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Decrease in depression, loneliness and feelings of isolation
- Decrease in aggressive behaviors
- Increase in socialization with an outward focus, including opportunities for laughter and a sense of happiness and well-being
- Increase in mental stimulation, attention skills, and verbal interactions
- Increase in spirit, self-esteem, and feeling of acceptance, enabling a patient to further participate in mental and physical therapy, to be more involved in group activities, and to accept social and emotional support
- Decrease in blood pressure
- Decrease in heart rate
- Decrease in the stress hormone cortisol
- Increase in hormones associated with health and a feeling of well-being, including beta-endorphin, beta-phenylethylamine, dopamine, oxytocin, prolactin and serotonin
- Increase in level of fitness by providing stimulus for exercise, with improvement in activities in which they were limited
- Improvement in fine motor skills, standing balance, wheelchair and other physical skills
In addition, the benefits listed above may result in a decrease in a person’s need for medications.
Where and How They Serve
Hospitals and retirement homes come to mind when most people think of therapy animals. In fact, therapy animals serve in a tremendous variety of venues and circumstances, and the number of ways in which they help people is equally great and varied.
Working with very ill children, Alzheimer’s patients, or in a hospice sounds like a wonderful way to serve. But if dealing with such circumstances is difficult for you, know that there will be others that will do well with them.
Find a venue for your therapy animal work that you and your animal will be comfortable with and enjoy, and you’ll be able to give the best you have to offer.
- Can a therapy dog visit my relative?
- Can I take my therapy dog to work with me?
Hospitals offer a special opportunity to help people through difficult times. Patients appreciate a warm and loving distraction from their pain and worries, as well as the depression and boredom that can result from a long hospital stay. And you will find that family members are every bit as appreciative. Not only because you are comforting their loved ones, but because they are also going through difficult times and appreciate a break from it themselves.
Waiting rooms provide another opportunity to serve. Relatives and friends of patients may be waiting for very long periods of time during surgeries, all the while worrying about the outcome.
Hospitals have established policies for visiting animals, and may require that teams be registered with a national organization. Some allow teams to visit most any patient who is not in isolation, while others only allow doctor-approved visits.
Hospitals require strict adherence to sanitary guidelines for you and your animal, including hand sanitizing before and after each visit with a patient. When animals are placed on a patient’s bed, they are placed on a clean sheet or towel used just for your visit with that one patient. You must also be very careful not to disturb a patient’s injury, or medical equipment such as IV tubing.
Retirement Homes, Assisted Living Homes, Nursing Homes and Hospices
The distinction between retirement homes, assisted living homes, nursing homes and hospices is important in that each represents a different group of clients, although the lines are not always clearly drawn. In each of these types of facilities you may visit clients in their rooms, visit with a group of clients in a meeting or living room, or a combination of the two.
Often the clients living in such facilities have little outside contact, and your visit may be the highlight of their week. Many will enjoy sharing memories of animals that have been a significant part of their lives in the past.
Retirement homes generally support independent living, and have the air of a senior citizen center. Assisted living homes provide services such as meals and housekeeping, and assist residents in daily living. And many have a special unit to provide for those with memory issues.
Nursing homes provide all the amenities of assisted living homes, with the addition of skilled nursing care. Hospices provide specialized healthcare that focuses on relieving suffering for patients who are nearing the end of life.
You may find it very difficult, or very rewarding, to work with people in the latter stages of life. It is important for you, your animal, and those you visit that you discover what type of work best suits your comfort level, skills and needs.
Mental and Physical Therapy
While there are many different ways in which therapy animal work is conducted, a significant distinction is made for those activities in which a health professional is directly involved.
The term animal-assisted activities (AAA) is used to describe activities which typically involve only the handler, their animal, and the client. Examples include visits to patients in hospitals and residents in retirement homes.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), on the other hand, is conducted by a health professional who uses the animal in providing their service to the client. Thus a typical session would include the health professional, the client, a therapy animal and its handler.
Animal-assisted therapy further differs from animal-assisted activities in that the sessions are designed to help the client achieve specific goals, such as increased mobility or improved memory. The sessions are documented by the health professional to record activity and progress.
Examples of areas where animal-assisted therapy is used to help clients improve:
- Verbal and physical interactions with others (self-expression, cooperation)
- Motor skills
- Mobility and balance
- Mental skills (memory, concentration, problem solving)
- Depression (grieving)
Visiting with therapy animals has been shown to lower anxiety and motivate participation. In physical therapy, the client may be motivated to brush the animal or walk with it. In mental therapy, the animal is seen as a friend and ally, thus presenting a safe atmosphere for sharing.
The World English Dictionary defines occupational therapy as follows:
Treatment of people with physical, emotional, or social problems, using purposeful activity to help them overcome or learn to deal with their problems
That nicely sums up the purpose of animal-assisted therapy.
Schools, Colleges and Universities
Therapy animals serve as non-judgmental companions in the process of learning and development. They are used for everything from helping with lessons to teaching social skills and responsibility. They help students with emotional problems that interfere with school, including grief and personal crisis.
In some cases, a teacher may be the handler of their own therapy animal, and their animal may spend an entire day at school with them. However, working with students for more than a couple hours would likely be very stressful for the animal. Therefore work time should be limited, and the animal should be provided a quiet, private space to escape to for lengthy breaks.
Can I take my therapy dog to work with me?
The use of therapy animals in colleges and universities has just recently become popular. They are primarily used to reduce stress and depression in students studying particularly difficult curriculums, or studying for exams. Visits with therapy animals have been reported by students to serve as a more healthy method of stress relief, as opposed to stereotypical alternatives such as binge drinking.
Animal-Assisted Reading Programs
When children read to others, it not only helps to improve their reading, vocabulary and comprehension skills, but also their confidence and self-esteem, allowing them to progress all the more. But children with poor reading skills can become intimidated, too self-conscious and fearful of ridicule to participate. Enter the dog.
In their wonderfully innocent way of thinking, children do not reason that there are others listening; they are simply reading to the dog. They are able to relax and concentrate on the task. Yet all the while the dog’s handler is present to help the child with reading and comprehension.
In animal-assisted reading programs in schools and libraries, children not only find it fun reading to a dog, but they can do so without fear of judgment. The calmness of the dog lessens the anxiety of the child, and the child knows that they will not be criticized or laughed at for their mistakes.
Not all “dogs” in animal-assisted reading programs are, well, dogs! A number of different species are used.
The sweet-looking bunny you see to the right volunteers at a shelter for homeless families. The shelter attempted to start a animal-assisted reading program, but found that the inner-city children were afraid of dogs because they were so often used for protection.
Crisis response organizations work with emergency response agencies to place therapy dog teams in disaster areas. The teams provide comfort, emotional support, and hope to the victims of the disaster, as well as to the emergency responders.
Disaster victims often shut down emotionally and stop thinking clearly. The presence of a dog, and especially physical contact with one, can help calm a person, which allows them to think more clearly. They are then in a better position to communicate their needs to emergency responders.
Teams are specially trained to work in stressful, unpredictable environments.
Therapy Animal Organizations
A woman told me that she owned a therapy dog.
She explained that she had been taking her dog on visits to see her mother, who resided in an assisted living home. Everyone at the facility fell in love with her dog and looked forward to their weekly visits. So when her mother passed away, she continued her visits with the other residents.
Was her dog a therapy dog? Sure, why not? It certainly did the work. But as you will read, there are a number of good reasons to register with a therapy animal organization. In addition, most facilities require that you be registered with an organization in order to visit their facility.
If you have a local therapy animal organization in your area, or a chapter or affiliate of a national organization, you may find it rewarding to become a member and enjoy the camaraderie and support of fellow members. A local organization will be active in your community, helping to find facilities that are seeking therapy animal visits and placing teams in those facilities.
As a member of a local organization, you will also have the opportunity to enjoy participating in such activities as training classes, evaluations, fundraising, and community events.
You can search the web for an organization in your area, or search for a local Pet Partners Community Partner Group here: Pet Partners Community Partner Groups
Requirements and Rules
Therapy animal organizations each have their own requirements and rules you must follow in order to become a member and to be protected by their insurance policy.
To get an idea what an evaluation might be like, the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) Program is a good place to start. Most therapy animal evaluations are similar to or an extension of the CGC test designed for dogs.
That said, organizations do differ in many ways. For example, some require that both the animal and handler be evaluated, while others only evaluate the animal. And some require periodic evaluations, while others only require that your registration be renewed every year or two.
Here are some other examples of the requirements and rules of various organizations:
- While serving under the auspices of the organization, you must serve as a volunteer and not receive compensation
- Minimum age requirements for you and your animal
- Your animal must be spayed or neutered
- Your animal may not be fed a raw protein diet
- Your animal must have a record of vaccination in accordance with your vet’s recommendations
- Your animal must be bathed before each visit
- You and your animal must wear ID while on the job
- Your animal must be kept on a leash of a maximum length while on the job
- You may only serve with one animal at at time
- You may not serve under the auspices of a second organization
Altogether, the list sounds very limiting. Remember that these are just examples, and that they do not apply to all organizations. Nevertheless, if one of them is an issue for you, you will want to consider it in selecting an organization to work with.
Unfortunately, especially in the very litigious United States, we have to worry about being sued even when we aren’t at fault. Also, while your animal might never bite someone, their nails or even their teeth could scratch them accidentally. And we have to be especially careful with the elderly who may have thinner, softer, less elastic skin.
If you have a homeowner’s policy, it may include coverage for just such an accident. However, if you file a claim for an animal bite, you may then be required to either get rid of your animal or change insurance companies.
Of course not everyone has a homeowner’s policy, or one with adequate coverage. And even for those who do, being covered by a policy designed for therapy animals might be the wiser choice.
So before registering with a therapy animal organization, be sure to find out if they offer insurance that will cover any liability you might be exposed to in the work you plan to do with your animal.
If you have a dog, it may not need any training at all! Therapy dogs simply have to be very obedient, tolerant, and social. And your dog is all of these things, right?
Dogs are brought to therapy dog evaluations that aren’t even close to being ready for therapy dog work. They bark and pull at other dogs, and have to be taken from the room to get them under control.
If you are unsure if your “best friend” is ready for therapy dog work, the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) Program is a good place to start. Most therapy dog evaluations are similar to or an extension of the CGC test.
If your dog needs additional training, check to see if a local therapy dog organization offers a training program or can refer you to one. Many professional dog trainers offer group classes designed to prepare you and your dog for a therapy dog evaluation.
If you have another species of animal, check with the therapy animal organization you plan to work with to learn about their evaluation so you can determine what additional training, if any, your animal will need.
Training for the handler differs with the different therapy animal organizations. Some require that you attend a training program, while others require that you and your animal attend a training program together. Still others allow you to go directly to an evaluation. Also some organizations allow home schooling on-line or from printed materials.
How do I train my puppy to be a therapy dog?
A few therapy dog organizations only require that you submit a copy of an AKC Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) Program certification along with your application in order to register with them. Most organizations, however, require that you be evaluated by members of their own organization.
If an organization offers a training program, it’s a great way to prepare for their evaluation. But whether they do or not, one of the best things you can do to prepare is to volunteer to assist at an evaluation and observe those being evaluated.
One of the most important things you can do during your evaluation, and in the therapy animal work you do afterward, is to be proactive. Most organizations do not treat the evaluation like an obedience trial, where a dog is to perform flawlessly with only minimal direction from its handler. In an evaluation, you are welcome to assist your animal just as you would on the job.
Here are a couple of examples of therapy dog handlers being proactive:
- If you see another dog enter the room, tell your dog so it doesn’t feel the need to tell you with a bark. This is being proactive, rather than acting after your dog barks, which would be reactive. Or doing nothing, which would be inactive.
- Let’s say three people are aggressively moving toward your dog and asking to pet it. That could be scary! So be proactive, and reach down and pick up your dog or bend down and physically connect with it. It will then feel secure with your contact, and should be fine being petting by any number of people.
Taking these proactive actions is exactly what you will be doing on the job.
Registration or Certification
The registration process follows training and evaluation, and often requires the submission of a health evaluation form completed by your veterinarian. Completing the process of registering with a therapy animal organization generally ensures that you and your animal are ready to safely serve your community, and that you are being responsible in protecting yourself with insurance.
If an organization doesn’t provide one or more of these services directly, it will guide you to another organization that does. For example, a local organization may provide all the support you need to become a therapy animal team, but they may refer you to a national organization for training, evaluation, registration and/or insurance.
How to Get Involved
If there are local therapy animal organizations in your area, contacting one of them is the best way to learn about opportunities to serve in your area. They will be able to tell you how you can register with them, or with one of the national organizations they work with.
To find a local organization in your area, search the web or search for a local Pet Partners Community Partner Group here:
Pet Partners Community Partner Groups
If you can’t find a local organization, contact some of the facilities in your area and ask them what local or national organizations are represented by the therapy animal teams that visit their facility.
I began working under the auspices of my local Humane Society. Then when I wanted to work in a hospital, I found that our local hospitals only accepted registration with the national organization Pet Partners. I created the page Getting Started with Pet Partners to give direction to people interested in becoming registered Pet Partners therapy animal teams.
If there is something I can help you with or questions you’d like answered, I’d be glad to help.