Introduction to Therapy Dogs and Other Therapy Animals
About this Website
I created this website to help those interested in sharing their animal's love and healing power with those in need. This page introduces therapy animals and the work they do.
Pet Partners provides an overview of the Pet Partners Therapy Animal Program, and how to become a registered team.
Evaluation Tips explains what you need to do to pass the Pet Partners Team Evaluation, and gives tips for each exercise.
Service and Emotional Support Dogs eliminates the confusion over the terms service, emotional support, and therapy dog.
I'd be happy to help you with any questions.
Photo: Prescription Pets
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. Species that are normally trained, such as dogs and horses, must have mastered basic obedience skills.
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, and bringing comfort to people recovering from crisis.
In all their activities, therapy animals are unconditionally accepting of those they visit.
The Healing Effects of Therapy Animals
Photo: TN Safety Spotters
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, and elicit positive reminiscing in clients with dementia. Therapy animal teams frequently witness measurable improvements, for example when 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 and 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, heart rate, and the stress hormone cortisol
Increase in hormones associated with health and 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 are limited
Improvement in motor skills including 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.
Training and Evaluation
Photo: Hidden Oaks Llama Ranch
If your animal is a well-behaved dog, it may not need additional training. Therapy dogs simply have to be obedient, tolerant, and social.
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 AKC's 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. Though again, what's needed is only basic obedience and good socialization, and you can teach these skills yourself or with the help of any good trainer.
You might also find this information appearing on the Pet Partners' website helpful:
Preparing Your Puppy to be a Therapy Dog
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 if additional training is required.
Training for the handler differs greatly with different organizations. In a Pet Partners' evaluation, the performance of the handler carries as much weight as that of the animal.
Where Therapy Animals Serve
Photo: Columbia River Pet Partners
Most people think of hospitals and retirement homes they think of therapy animals. In fact, therapy animals serve in a tremendous variety of venues, 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?
Photo: Therapy Animals of Redding
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. Family and friends spend hour upon hour waiting during a patient's surgery, all the while worrying about the outcome.
Hospitals require strict adherence to sanitation guidelines, including hand sanitizing before and after each visit. When animals are placed on a bed, they are placed on a clean sheet or towel used just for that visit. You must also be very careful not to disturb a patient's injury, or medical equipment such as IV tubing.
This video presents an overview of our work at Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital.
Retirement Homes, Assisted Living Homes, Nursing Homes and Hospices
Photo: Pet Partners
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 and/or visit with a group of clients in a family room. Often those living in such facilities have little outside contact, and your visit may be the highlight of their week.
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 dementia.
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 their lives.
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 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. A session includes the health professional, the client, a therapy animal and its handler.
AAT further differs from AAA in that the sessions are designed to achieve specific goals, and are documented by the health professional to record activity and progress.
In mental therapy, the animal is seen as a friend and ally, thus presenting a safe atmosphere for sharing. Therapists work toward goals such as improving memory, concentration and problem solving, and reducing depression and anxiety.
In physical therapy, clients are motivated to improve motor skills, mobility and balance though exercises such as brushing the animal or walking it.
Stress release at finals time
Stress Release Clinics
The use of therapy animals in stress release clinics has become popular on college and university campuses, and is now becoming increasingly popular with high schools and even businesses.
In educational institutions, these clinics are used primarily to reduce stress and depression in students studying particularly difficult curriculums, or studying for final 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.
Businesses hold stress release clinics during difficult periods in their business cycle, for example an accounting firm might hold a clinic during tax season.
Therapy Dogs at Work at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette
Animal-Assisted Reading Programs
Penelope at a homeless shelter
When children read to others, it not only helps improve their reading, vocabulary and comprehension skills, but also their confidence and self-esteem. But children with poor reading skills can be intimidated, too self-conscious and fearful of ridicule to participate in classroom reading activities.
In animal-assisted reading programs in schools, libraries and other facilities, children read to animals in a safe, non-judgmental environment. They are able to relax and concentrate on the task, while the amimals's handler is present to help with reading and comprehension.
Not all therapy animals are dogs
Animal-Assisted Crisis Response
Photo: TN Safety Spotters
Therapy animal organizations that specialize in crisis response are invited by local authorities to place therapy dog teams in areas recovering from crisis. The teams provide comfort, emotional support, and hope to the victims of the crisis, as well as to emergency responders and the staff of other crisis response organizations.
Victims of crisis often shut down emotionally and stop thinking clearly. The presence of a dog, and especially physical contact with one, can help calm a person, allowing them to think more clearly. They are then in a better position to communicate their needs to those working to support them.
Crisis response teams are specially trained to work in stressful, unpredictable environments.