Therapy dogs

Complete Guide to Therapy Dogs

People who find themselves in hospitals or long-term care facilities often experience feelings of sadness, loneliness, and even abandonment, but a visit from a loving pet can quickly improve their physical and emotional health. Therapy dogs are trained to accompany their owners or handlers on special visits to the sick and elderly. The calming presence of these dogs soothes and touches the lives of the children and adults they greet. Although therapy dogs are often Labradors or Golden Retrievers, any good-natured, well-behaved dog is eligible to become a therapy dog. Therapy dogs may be of any breed or age, but they must be gentle and obedient in every situation. They should not be confused with service dogs, which serve a different purpose.

The Therapy Dog’s Job
With their owners or handlers, therapy dogs visit hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities. Their duty is to pleasantly interact with every patient or resident who is willing to see them. Regardless of whether they are visiting children or adults, therapy dogs must always be friendly and maintain a patient, gentle demeanor. Although the average dog tends to jump with excitement at the prospect of meeting new people, any dog that works in a therapeutic capacity needs to remain composed in all of its social interactions.

An overly energetic dog can intimidate even the most welcoming of patients or residents, so every therapy dog must know how to approach people in a careful, non-intimidating way. Therapy dogs must also love to be petted and be able to meekly accept any squeezing, tail pulling, or ear tugging they may encounter during their visits. It is a therapy dog’s job to behave perfectly on every visit; any dog that fails to do this is likely to lose its visiting privileges very quickly.

History of the Therapy Dog
The use of therapy dogs goes back to the mid twentieth century. The first therapy dog was a female Yorkshire terrier named Smoky, who became the sidekick of American corporal William Wynne during World War II. Smoky quickly became famous for joining Wynne on his military missions, but she took on a completely new role after Wynne fell ill. Members of Wynne’s staff brought Smoky to the hospital to lift Wynne’s spirits, but quickly realized that she cheered up other recovering soldiers as well. After the war ended, Smoky returned to the United States with Wynne and spent the rest of her life visiting the sick and elderly.

In the 1970s, after witnessing the soothing effects that dogs can have on hospital patients, an American nurse named Elaine Smith furthered the therapy dog movement by establishing the first program to train dogs for therapeutic purposes. The concept of dog therapy spread even more under the leadership of Nancy Stanley, who founded the Tender Loving Zoo organization in 1982. Tender Loving Zoo places particular emphasis on sending dogs to visit people who are handicapped or are living in convalescent facilities. Since the 1980s, therapy dogs have only become a more popular means of comforting hospital patients and long-term care residents.

Benefits of a Therapy Dog
People who receive visits from therapy dogs experience both physical and emotional benefits. It has been scientifically proven that the mere act of petting a dog can reduce a person’s heart rate and blood pressure to healthier levels. People who are lonely or distraught can become calmer and happier as a result of having a gentle, affectionate dog in their lives. Many of these people would like to be at home with pets of their own, but receiving routine visits from therapy dogs gives them something to look forward to and allows them to regularly enjoy the comforting presence of an animal. Children and adults who have difficulty speaking often enjoy talking or reading to the therapy dogs that visit them; while humans may be rude or become annoyed, a therapy dog will always quietly and patiently listen.

The Difference Between Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs
Members of the public sometimes believe that a therapy dog is the same as a service dog, but this is not the case. A service dog is trained to provide physical assistance to a disabled person and is trained to open doors, retrieve objects, and perform other everyday tasks. A service dog also lives with the person it helps. Therapy dogs provide emotional support to people who may be disabled, but do not perform tasks for them. These dogs act as visitors and only see the people they interact with for short intervals. In addition, therapy dogs only have the privilege of entering the facilities they are certified to visit, while the American Disabilities Act allows service dogs to enter any public place.

Therapy Dog Training
Every potential therapy dog must undergo an evaluation with a certification organization to prove that it is sufficiently trained for visiting strangers. There are many small organizations throughout the United States that certify dogs for therapy purposes, but owners and handlers who certify their dogs through American Kennel Club (AKC)-approved programs stand a better chance of finding work for their dogs in medical and care-based facilities. Since therapy dogs visit facilities with their owners or with other people they already know, it is their owners’ responsibility to ensure that they receive the training they need.

Owners can train their dogs themselves, take their dogs to regular obedience schools, or in some cases take their dogs to special classes that are geared toward passing the therapy evaluation. To be eligible for therapy, dogs must demonstrate that they can greet people without jumping or pawing. They must also be trained not to disturb any food they see at the facilities they visit. Many dogs tend to be afraid of objects like walkers and wheelchairs, but therapy dogs must be trained not to react to these objects before receiving certification. They need to be calm in the event of loud noises and obey every command they are given. Any dog that meets these standards may take the certification test and, if successful, become involved in therapeutic work.

Where to Find Therapy Dogs
Coordinators at hospitals and other facilities should contact local dog certification agencies or the AKC to inquire about certified therapy dogs that can visit their patients or residents. Individuals who would like therapy dogs to visit their loved ones need to check with the facilities their loved ones call home; nurses, doctors, and other staff members should be well-informed about any therapy dog programs a particular facility might have. It is quite easy to find information about therapy dog organizations on the Internet, as an increasing number of organizations have their own websites. Most U.S. states have a number of therapy dog organizations that are approved by the AKC and are guaranteed to provide excellent therapy dogs.

  • List of U.S. Therapy Dog Organizations – This website provides links to therapy dog organizations in every state. It also discusses therapy dog training and the benefits therapy dogs can bring.

  • AKC-Approved Therapy Dog Organizations – This page lists therapy dog organizations across the United States whose programs are recognized by the American Kennel Club.

  • ASPCA Animal Assisted Therapy Programs – The ASPCA explains the criteria for evaluating potential therapy dogs, including the amount of training they must have.

  • National Capital Therapy Dogs, Inc.- How to Volunteer – This page describes how dogs and their owners can complete a therapy training course and become certified to visit nursing homes and hospitals through a therapy dog organization in Maryland. There are other organizations like this throughout the country.

  • Therapy Dog Testing – PDF – This brochure from Therapy Dogs International explains the amount of training a dog should have to test for therapy certification and discusses what will be expected during the test.

  • Service/Assistance Animals – A section on the state of New Hampshire’s website explains the differences between therapy animals, service animals, and guide dogs.

  • Animal-Assisted Therapy – This page from the University of Minnesota gives a good definition of what a therapy dog is and how it differs from a service dog.

  • Sophie, Certified Therapy Dog – A page from SUNY Geneseo profiles an actual therapy dog and explains what she does.

  • Welcome Waggers Pet Therapy – This page from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler features pictures of real therapy dogs with the patients they visit. It discusses how many different types of dogs “volunteer” in therapy after becoming certified.

  • Paw Partners Pet Therapy Benefits – This page from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explains how therapy dogs can help hospitalized children and explains how people can volunteer at the hospital with their dogs.

  • The Health Benefits of Companion Animals – PDF – This document on the National Park Service’s website discusses the physiological health benefits of interacting with a pet.

  • Therapy Dogs International Study – PDF – This document on the State of Michigan’s website explores how therapy dogs affect the people who live or work in the facilities they visit.

  • Therapy Dogs in the Emergency Department – A page from the National Institutes of Health discusses the results of a study on dogs in the emergency department at a hospital. The study involved staff as well as patients.

  • Therapaws – This page from the Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan explains the positive effects of therapy dogs and explains how parents can request therapy dogs to visit their children.

  • Animal Assisted Therapy: Why to Ask for a Therapy Dog and How to Interact With One – A page from Wake Forest University’s Baptist Medical Center offers patients reasons why a therapy dog might be a good solution for them and suggests ways for patients to bond with their therapy dogs.

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