Using Therapy Dogs to Improve Mental and Physical Health

A Unique Form of Mental Health Therapy

Man petting his therapy dog outside
Suprijono Suharjoto/Stocksy United

Therapy dogs are pets that improve your health by giving emotional support. You can train your dog to be a therapy dog to provide support to yourself and to others.

Therapy dogs live in people's homes. They can also visit a variety of settings, including retirement or nursing homes, schools, hospice homes, and hospitals. They are trained to be gentle and friendly, and to accept strangers hugging them or petting them.

They are patient and unbothered by children who tug at their fur, or adults who want the smaller ones to sit in their laps.

Therapy dogs are just one type of therapy animal. Other pets that are often used for emotional support are cats, rabbits, birds — even llamas and alpacas.

The Difference Between Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs

You may have also heard of service dogs, but they're different from therapy dogs.

  • Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks on behalf of their owners. They receive rigorous, high-end, task-oriented training aimed specifically at helping their owners overcome disabilities. There are laws set forth by the Americans With Disabilities Act that allow these dogs to accompany their owners in public places. 
  • Therapy dogs are sometimes called "comfort dogs." They support a person's mental health by providing attention and comfort. Their sweet demeanors and unconditional love may have a therapeutic benefit to those who face difficult health challenges. Unlike service dogs, however, anyone can enjoy a therapy dog.

    Another difference between therapy dogs and service dogs is that therapy dogs are not covered by the ADA. As a result, they don't have the same privileges for appearing with their owners in restricted public places unless special permission is provided ahead of time. The therapy pet must be invited to the premises to provide some positive comfort therapy.

    How Therapy Dogs Can Boost Your Health

    Some mental health challenges and psychiatric disorders are known to respond well to therapy dogs. Patients diagnosed with a range of issues, such as depression, bipolar disorder, autism, ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even Alzheimer's disease benefit from their interaction with therapy pets.

    Sometimes, emotional challenges are the result of physical health problems — and therapy dogs can help with those, too. Experts suggest that patients who are recovering from difficult surgery or a bad accident who spend time with pets may heal more quickly. Studies have shown that such interactions can increase the mood-boosting hormones oxytocin and dopamine and decrease the stress hormone cortisol.

    What Kind of Dogs Can Be Therapy Dogs?

    Any friendly breed of dog can be considered a therapy dog with a bit of training. Larger breeds like golden retrievers, St. Bernards, and labradors are commonly used as therapy dogs. But smaller breeds like Poodles and Pomeranians are good choices when the dog and the patient are sharing a small space.

    The dog's good demeanor may partially be a function of its breed, but it's mostly dependent on how the dog is raised and how evenly its temperament develops. Prior to being accepted as therapy animals, dogs are tested and observed for their response to stimuli, such as loud or confusing noises, suddenly being grabbed, or even equipment, such as canes or wheelchairs.

    Getting Your Own Therapy Dog 

    If you would like to learn more about finding a therapy dog to help yourself or a loved one, there are a number of directories online. Do an online search for "therapy dog" and the name of your city or town to find individuals and organizations near you.

    If you're interested in learning about training your dog to be a therapy dog or visiting nursing homes or other facilities with your pet, do a web search for "therapy dog training" and the name of your city or town to see what opportunities are available. Or simply phone or email the facility you have in mind to learn their acceptance procedure.

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