Imagine sitting in the ER, crying quietly after learning that a dear family member has taken critically ill.
As you despair, you feel a gentle nudge under your hand. You look down to see a pair of beautiful brown eyes gazing up at you with tenderness and love.
You've just shared a moment with a therapy dog.
The dog doesn't know why you’re here, and doesn't understand the overwhelming emotions that are causing your heartache. Their only wish is to relieve your pain with compassion, kindness and understanding.
Therapy dogs have become more and more popular in the past two decades. They help alleviate anxiety for people in hospital settings, help children learn to read aloud in library programs, and bring joy and happiness to the elderly in retirement home, just to name a few scenarios.
Not surprisingly, the number of pet parents interested in training their dogs for therapy purposes has skyrocketed. It’s lovely to envision how your dog can help others in stressful situations. But there’s a lot to consider when deciding whether your pup has the right stuff to become a therapy dog — and whether you're up for becoming a therapy dog handler.
How do I train my dog?
Is the training difficult, time-consuming, or hard on the dog?
What’s the best organization for therapy dog accreditation?
Will I have the time and energy for training and therapy visits?
Does my dog have the right temperament and disposition?
This last consideration is actually most important: Any dog who isn't naturally friendly, calm and tolerant isn't a good candidate to become a therapy dog.
Let’s dive in!
What Is a Therapy Dog?
Here’s a quick definition of “therapy dog” from the American Kennel Club:
“A therapy dog lends comfort and affection to people in a facility setting or to certain individuals who require visitation to deal with a physical or emotional problem”
There’s more to it than that, of course. Therapy dogs usually work their magic in settings like schools, hospitals, retirement homes and even prisons. These are places where lots of people are gathered together for very similar reasons, and are therefore likely to be dealing with similar problems.
Granted, different people may have somewhat different reasons for being in these settings, but a therapy dog can help them all in different ways, simply by doing their job: providing comfort.
A therapy dog serves this comfort simply by allowing people to pet them, or even by cuddling up with them. Whether it’s a long-time prison inmate or a hospitalized child, people tend to gravitate towards a happy, friendly dog the moment they bounce through the door.
What Conditions Do Therapy Dogs Help With?
Research shows that good therapy dogs do indeed create a positive impact. In a recent study from the University of Saskatchewan, nearly half of all ER patients who visited with a therapy dog experienced improvements in anxiety, depression, and even physical pain.
And though these results relate to just one area of need (medical patients in the ER), just think of what can be accomplished in other settings and in other contexts.
Helping with mental health disorders such as PTSD, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Therapy dogs have been especially useful in helping military veterans – specifically, by helping them focus on other life skills and coping with the after-effects of their military service.
Reducing stress during or after a traumatic episode, such as sitting with a sick child following a chemotherapy treatment.
Helping in library and school programs that encourage children to read out loud to therapy dogs to improve confidence in their reading skills.
Helping inmates who have prison-related anxiety and depression to develop the empathic skills needed for rehabilitation.
Requirements to Become a Therapy Dog
There are several accredited animal therapy organizations that aspiring therapy dog handlers can easily learn about online, and even more statewide and local outfits are popping up all over. Those organizations are very helpful for determining what characteristics your pup must possess before they begin training in a therapy dog program. Most importantly, they need to be calm, friendly, and tolerant.
And crucially, a great therapy dog must possess all of these traits. For instance, a dog can’t work in a quiet setting like a hospital or retirement home if they’re boisterous and excitable, even if they’re friendly and tolerant of people, sounds, and smells. An initial evaluation by the therapy dog organization can immediately help determine whether your dog has the right demeanor.
These are some reputable animal therapy training organizations:
Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society)
Alliance of Therapy Dogs (formerly Therapy Dogs Incorporated)
Usually, therapy animal organizations will require a small fee to register your dog and to begin the certification training.
Aside from registration fees, other costs to keep in mind include regular trips to the veterinarian and pet groomer to make sure you're bringing a clean, healthy dog for social visits.
What's It Like to Be a Therapy Dog Handler?
According to professional dog trainer Christine Johnson of Dogs4Life.com, being a therapy dog handler is a big commitment.
“It takes passion and dedication to educate yourself about dog training and to spend the time it takes, usually daily, training your dog step by step,” she told ManyPets.
So how do you begin your dog’s training? Great question!
A Canine Good Citizen certification through the American Kennel Club (AKC) is an excellent place to start with your dog’s basic training.
Teaching your dog ‘sit,’ ‘stay,’ ‘down,’ and (probably the most important command) ‘leave it’ is what most accredited therapy dog organizations consider the building blocks for any therapy dog training.
If you’re considering a puppy or a rescue dog for a therapy dog training program, the dog’s personality and temperament are absolutely key. Although some dog breeds may seem more suited to being a therapy dog, it's possible for a dog of any breed to be too shy or fearful — or too dominant or aggressive — to be a suitable candidate for therapy.
Also keep in mind that where you live may dictate what type of therapy dog your community needs. If you live near several schools, for instance, you can serve your community by training your therapy dog to be around kids and participate in library and special education programs. And a good way to start is by training your dog to tolerate lots of commotion.
But if your community is filled with more hospitals or retirement homes, it's particularly important to train your dog to be gentle and quiet around sick and elderly people, and to remain calm around wheelchairs and medical equipment.
Therapy Dogs vs. Service Dogs: There's a Difference!
Many times, descriptions of dogs who “help” are bandied about as if they were interchangeable. Therapy dog…Emotional support dog… Service dog… All the same thing, right?
The main difference lies in how these different types of dogs interact with humans. Service dogs and emotional support dogs only work and interact with one person — their owner. And like therapy dogs and emotional support dogs, service dogs can provide comfort and solace.
But service dogs go a step further and perform specific tasks for their owner, such as:
Guiding the blind and alerting the deaf to noises.
Retrieving items for the wheelchair-bound and/or actually pulling the wheelchair.
Reminding their person to take prescribed meds, or warning them when a seizure or diabetic attack is coming on.
Calming anxiety attacks or nightmares for people with PTSD.
Since service dogs are working dogs, any distraction such as people trying to feed or pet them is a definite no-no. The dog’s focus and concentration must be on their owner to make sure they stay safe and that they're not missing any signs of an oncoming problem.
Service animals are recognized by law thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They can accompany their owners into places where pets are usually not allowed, such as restaurants, stores, and office buildings.
An emotional support animal (ESA), meanwhile, is not recognized by the ADA. But another law, the Fair Housing Act, generally allows owners with a doctor's prescription to live with their ESAs, even when their housing (or college campus) otherwise disallows animals.
Therapy dogs are different from either service dogs or ESAs: They don't have special legal protections and they're not trained to focus on one person. Instead, they’re trained to seek out and interact with people in a social setting.
Oh, and petting a therapy dog that isn't yours is highly encouraged!
Indeed, a lot of the work that therapy dogs do simply involves sitting calmly while being cuddled or petted — sometimes by a whole class of excited students.
Why Volunteer in the First Place?
Anyone who volunteers to be a therapy dog handler will reap benefits of their own. The time spent training your dog will help you develop a deep bond with your canine buddy. Together you'll make priceless contributions to your community. You'll gain a sense of profound belonging and empowerment whether you've helped someone through a traumatic illness, helped a child improve their reading skills, brightened a senior citizen's day, or helped a prisoner achieve rehabilitation.
With the right commitment, training your dog for this valued and respected service can fill you with optimism and inspiration. You'll be immensely proud of the comfort and contentment that you and your canine companion have provided to your community.
Nothing could be more satisfying or rewarding.
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