Introduction to Therapy Dogs

  • What Is a Therapy Animal?
  • The Healing Effects of Therapy Animals
  • Where and How Therapy Animals Serve
  • Hospitals
  • Retirement Homes, Assisted Living Homes, Nursing Homes and Hospices
  • Mental and Physical Therapy
  • Schools, Colleges and Universities
  • Read to Dog Programs
  • Disaster Areas
  • The First Therapy Dog
  • Therapy Animal Organizations
  • Requirements and Rules
  • Insurance
  • Training
  • Evaluation
  • Registration or Certification
  • Local Organizations
  • How to Get Involved

About this Web Page

I created this web page to help those interested in becoming involved in helping others through therapy animal work, sharing the love and healing power of their dogs or other animals with those in need. It is heart-warming work, and we are helpless in our efforts to give more than we receive.

Before continuing, I suggest you read my Service Dogs page, as there is much confusion over the difference between service and therapy animals. And for those interested, my Pet Partners page gives step-by-step instructions on how to become a registered Pet Partners team and begin sharing your animal’s love with others.

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If you have any questions, I’d be happy to help you.

Peter Christensen
[email protected]

Muka and Me Outside Pediatrics

What Is a Therapy Animal?

Dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, domesticated rats, horses, donkeys, llamas, alpacas, pot-bellied pigs and birds can all be used in therapy animal work. This website was named TherapyDogInfo only because most therapy animals are dogs, and that’s what most people will search for on the web.

Therapy animals are best known for bringing affection, comfort 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.

Photo courtesy H.A.L.O.

Sadly, sometimes family and friends are too uncomfortable to visit their ill or aging loved ones because of their condition. Connecting with an animal, petting or cuddling with it, can bring a smile and warm memories to those who feel ill, lonely or neglected.

But therapy animals also serve in many other ways, including helping people with learning difficulties, helping people with mental and physical therapy, and bringing comfort to people in stressful situations such as those recovering from disaster.

Research has shown that contact with a therapy animal helps improve a patient’s physical, mental, emotional and social state, which in turn helps them better engage and participate in the process of their treatment and recovery.

Therapy animals come in all shapes and sizes, and their most important characteristic is not their species, breed or appearance, but their temperament. They are friendly, patient, confident, gentle, and at ease with strangers. They provide unconditional acceptance and never fail to put smiles on the faces of children and adults.

A therapy animal must enjoy human contact and excessive petting. And they must be comfortable staying in place, whether it is on a floor, chair, couch, bed or lap, or in their handler’s arms. Therapy animals do not need to perform, though a few simple tricks will surely delight their audiences.

Therapy animals must obey basic obedience commands, and be tolerant of disturbances such as:

  • Clumsy handling by children and elderly people (though the animal’s handler should never let their animal be abused)
  • Equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and canes
  • Sudden and loud noises
  • The surprise of seeing another animal in a facility

Therapy animal evaluations generally include disturbances such as those listed above, but the goal is not to have an animal that doesn’t react at all. After all, a sudden, loud noise would make you jump! But such disturbances should not cause the animal to panic. And if it does react, with its handler’s assurance it should quickly regain composure.

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The Healing Effects of Therapy Animals

Spending time with animals produces marked improvements in humans, affecting both the mental and physical aspects of their well-being.

“Dogs, cats, and other pets, by their simple companionship and unconditional affection, are natural healers. They lower blood pressure, speed recovery, reduce the need for medication, and soothe the spirits of people in distress.”

— Betty White, actress and long-time Pet Partners supporter

Therapy animal teams frequently witness improvements in their clients. Mentally, they may simply become happier, more alert, more interested. Physically, they may become more active or improve in activities in which they are limited. Occasionally, measurable improvements are witnessed as well.

A tangible example would be a chemotherapy patient who can’t receive a treatment because their blood pressure is too high. After visiting with a therapy animal, their blood pressure is re-checked and they are found to be ready for treatment.

Here are just some of the healing effects that may benefit a person who spends time with a therapy animal:

  • Mental Benefits
  • Decrease in stress and anxiety
  • Decrease in depression
  • Decrease in loneliness and feelings of isolation
  • Decrease in aggressive behaviors
  • Increase in feeling of acceptance, and social and emotional support
  • Increase in socialization with an outward focus, and opportunities for laughter and feeling of happiness
  • Increase in mental stimulation, and feeling of well-being
  • Increase in spirit, enabling a patient to further participate in mental and physical therapy

Physical Benefits

  • 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
  • improve level of fitness by providing stimulus for exercise
Photo courtesy TN Safety Spotters
Photo courtesy Therapaws of Michigan

In addition, the benefits listed above may result in a decrease in a person’s need for medications.

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Where and How Therapy Animals Serve

Photo courtesy Columbia River Pet Partners

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.

A wonderful way to learn about the different possibilities is to shadow teams as they work. Make arrangements with a local organization to follow teams in a variety of different settings so that you can discover how you and your animal will best enjoy serving.

If you don’t have a local therapy animal organization, see if you can make arrangements to shadow through the facilities you might be interested in serving. Your contact will likely be the Volunteer Coordinator or Activities Directory.

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.

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Photo courtesy Prescription Pets

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.

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Retirement Homes, Assisted Living Homes, Nursing Homes and Hospices

Photo courtesy 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, 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.

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Mental and Physical Therapy

Photo courtesy Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA)

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
  • Exercise
  • Mental skills (memory, concentration, problem solving)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression (grieving)
  • Trust

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.

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Schools, Colleges and Universities

Therapy animals serve as non-judgmental companions in the process of learning and development. They are used for everything from help 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 trained 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 is limited, and the animal is provided a quiet, private space to escape to for lengthy breaks.

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.

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Read to Dog Programs

Photo courtesy Pets for Vets / PAWSitive Therapy Troupe

When children read to others, it not only helps to improve their reading, vocabulary and comprehensive 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 read to dog 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.

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Disaster Areas

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.

Photo courtesy TN Safety Spotters

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The First Therapy Dog

When Bill Wynne was serving with the 5th Air Force, 26th Photo Recon Squadron in New Guinea in 1944, a friend found a 4-pound Yorkshire Terrier in a foxhole. Bill adopted the little dog and named her Smoky.

Smoky suffered all the hardships and dangers of war, flying with Bill throughout the Pacific and living off his C-rations. But even when Bill was working 12-hour shifts 7 days a week, there was down time, and Bill and Smoky spent much of it having fun learning tricks together.

 If you have trained a dog to do a trick or two, you will appreciate that Bill was able to teach Smoky all their wonderful tricks without using treats. As a solder in the Pacific during WWII, Bill didn’t have any treats to use!

One time when Bill was hospitalized with a jungle disease, his army buddies brought Smoky to see him. Smoky’s antics brought great pleasure to the other patients, and the nurses asked if Smoky could stay with Bill, sleeping on his bed.

Bill was “flat on his back” ill, but the nurses wanted Smoky to accompany them as they tended to incoming casualties from the Biak Island invasion. Commanding Officer Major Dr. Charles W. Mayo, of the famed Mayo Clinic, gave the okay.

 This was a pivotal moment in the history of therapy dogs. In allowing Smoky to stay in the hospital, Dr. Mayo recognized both the healing power and joy that a dog could bring to patients, and that it was safe to have a dog in a medical environment.

Word spread about this amazing team, and Bill and Smoky got a second invitation while they were on leave in Brisbane, Australia. They were staying at an American Red Cross facility, and nurse Barbara Wood Smith asked them to visit the sailors and marines at the 109th Fleet Naval Hospital.

Smoky, Bill, and American Red Cross nurse Barbara Wood Smith with a hospital patient
Photos © 2013 William A. Wynne, used by permission

 Their very successful experience at the hospital marks a direct trail to the therapy dog work that we know today. An Animal Planet investigation determined Smoky to be the first therapy dog of record.

Smoky was much honored for her services during the war, and Yank Down Under magazine named her the “Champion Mascot in the Southwest Pacific Area.” In fact it was this recognition that helped influence the decision to allow Smoky into the first hospital. You can read more about Bill and Smoky’s war history in Wikipedia under Smoky (dog).

After the war, Bill and Smoky continued their work, visiting veterans’ hospitals throughout the 40s and into the 50s. Beyond their services to the military, Bill and Smoky became popular on TV, and their continued adventures eventually led them to Hollywood. If you love dogs, you’ll enjoy reading more of Bill and Smoky’s story in Bill’s book, Yorkie Doodle Dandy.

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Therapy Animal Organizations

Photo courtesy Kamlu Retirement Inn

A woman said she had 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.

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Requirements and Rules

Photo courtesy Prescription Pets

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:

  • 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 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.

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Photo courtesy Paws to Heal

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.

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Columbia River Pet Partners Class

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.

Either way, arrange to shadow other teams, following them on their rounds at the facilities they visit. It’s not only a great way to learn, but it’s a great way to choose the type of facility that you and your animal are best suited to enjoy working in.

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Photo courtesy Hidden Oaks Llama Ranch

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. If the organization only allows members to assist, then go as an observer.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 connect with it if it’s larger. 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.

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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.

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Local Organizations

Photo courtesy Columbia River Pet Partners

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 team 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.

If you don’t have a local therapy animal organization or you simply desire to work independently, a national organization may suit your needs. They may also assist in team placement, coordinating available teams with requests for visits.

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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. Even if you wish to work independently under the auspices of a national organization, they will serve as a good source of local information.

If you can’t find a local therapy animal 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 a national organization and I joined Pet Partners. I created the web page Getting Started with Pet Partners to give direction to people interested in becoming a registered Pet Partners therapy animal team.

If there is something I can help you with or questions you’d like answered, I’d be glad to help.

Peter Christensen
[email protected]

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