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Have you ever been to a hospital or nursing home and seen teams of people coming in with dogs at their side? Sometimes the dogs will be in vests or wear bandanas, other times there’s not much to differentiate them from regular pets. Chances are, you encountered a therapy dog. “What is a therapy dog?” you might be wondering. Well, keep reading and you’ll learn something new!


What is a therapy dog?

Therapy dogs are pets who provide therapeutic relief to people in places like hospitals, schools, disaster zones and nursing homes. They are required to go through substantial training and evaluations before they are approved, with some organisations assessing their therapy dogs on a routine basis to ensure that they remain suitable and safe for therapy work.


What is a therapy dog doing exactly, and how does it provide benefit?

Intuitively, most people can agree that dogs are masters at bringing joy and happiness, providing a distraction from pain and emotional struggle and generally injecting life into any given situation. Thankfully, research is starting to catch-up, and a number of studies have confirmed what most dog owners have long suspected – dogs can help us heal.

Therapy dogs help relieve stress

The simple act of petting a dog has been clinically shown to reduce cortisol (a hormone released in times of stress that can cause detrimental effects over time) and blood pressure. In times of worry, such as immediately after natural disasters, waiting at the hospital, and even during university exams, therapy dogs have been called in to reduce emotional strain. Therapy dogs also relieve anxiety in patients who are waiting for surgery or diagnostic procedures such as an MRI.

Therapy dogs help relieve physical pain

A simple visit from a handler and therapy dog team can cause a significant drop in physical pain. The decrease in stress hormones, combined with a boost of endorphins and oxytocin (feel good, pain relieving chemicals that are released when we experience positive things like exercise and affection) seems to be just the right combination to help improve peoples’ physical distress. Sometimes this happens in just fifteen minutes!

Therapy dogs improve peoples’ moods

It’s an obvious one, but it’s always worth mentioning – dog’s make people happy (most of them at least). In the same study looking into therapy dogs’ impact on physical pain, researchers noticed a temporary decrease in the outpatients’ anxiety and depression. Just fifteen minutes of interacting with a sweet pup causes a dramatic drop in cortisol and a big burst in oxytocin (the same feel-good brain chemical from above that soothes emotional and physical distress).

Therapy dogs help autistic children progress socially

Much research has gone into children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). One study in particular found that autistic children showed more social approach behaviours (eg. talking, touching), as well as received more social approach behaviours from other children when there were animals present. In addition, children with ASD appear to smile and laugh more, showing less self-focused behaviours such as frowning, whining and crying when the animals were nearby.

Therapy dogs help children learn

Therapy Dog International‘s Tail Waggin’ Tutors is just one example of the wonderful emerging initiatives aiming to help children learn valuable life skills. In this particular program, children are able to build up self-confidence and reading skills in a relaxed atmosphere by reading out loud to patient, nonjudgmental canine ears. Teachers have found that by allowing therapy dogs through their doors, excitement for reading increases, children flourish and reading scores go up.


Where are therapy dogs allowed entry?

Therapy dogs are allowed anywhere that regular dogs go. With prior approval, they can also be granted access to hospitals, libraries, nursing homes, hospices, disaster relief zones, offices, universities, schools, and any other institution that requests a call. Outside of these scheduled visits, therapy dogs do not get any special access privileges.


What is a therapy dog’s temperament like?

To be successful, therapy dog’s need a few special qualities. While some aspects can be trained and conditioned, handlers have a much easier time if their teammate has a natural flair.

All therapy dogs have a deep and genuine love of people
(all shapes, sizes and states). While your dog may love you, your family and possibly even your friends, therapy dogs love everyone. They live for human interaction above all else and they want nothing more than to share their love anyone who’s willing. Their personalities are magnetic, and they seem to seek out the person that needs them most.

At the same time, therapy dogs are calm. Many of the individuals they’re visiting may be elderly, injured, weak or nervous. As a result, therapy dogs need to provide comfort in remarkably unobnoxious ways. Sitting calmly while being petted, standing still while a stranger lovingly brushes their fur and keeping composure while children rapidly approach, yelling and screaming are just a few examples. It takes a special kind of dog to be able to tolerate (and even enjoy) these sorts of situations. Sometimes they’d be required to lie down and stay quiet for extended periods of time while their handler has a conversation with a patient who prefers human company. Natural calmness is where a lot of dogs fail to make the cut.

In addition to calmness, therapy dogs are bombproof (this may sound familiar if you’ve read our posts on service dog temperaments).  Since therapy dogs are interacting with members of the public (in particular those who are physically disadvantaged, and therefore more vulnerable), they need to be incredibly sound, safe animals. Anything can happen at any time when they’re out and about – someone might ride over their tail with a wheelchair, step on their paw with a crutch, drop a bedpan next to their sensitive ears or a young child may pull on their fur. Therapy dogs can not show any form of shyness, fear or aggression, even in these circumstances. Yet another reason why not everyone makes the grade.


Sometimes therapy dogs have to do nothing for a while. ARCTIC WARRIOR/CC


Would you like to get involved?

If all of this sounds like something you would love to participate in with your own sweet pet, get online and research which therapy organisations are in your area. There are a number of volunteer organisations around the US who take it upon themselves to regulate, test and register therapy dog teams (i.e. handlers and their dog). Each one has their own set of criteria, so it’s best to see who you’d like to join up with, and then take the necessary steps to get yourself, and your dog, qualified. A good starting point is Therapy Dog International (TDI) and Pet Partners – both are reputable, operate nationwide, and offer great services to the public.

If you and your dog are up for it, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and animal assisted activities (AAA) are a wonderful, truly selfless way to give back to your community.



References and recommended reading:

  • Odendaal, J.S., Meintjes, R.A. (2003). Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behaviour between humans and dogs. The Veterinary Journal, 165(3), 296-301.
  • UCR. (2006, May 26). Therapy Dogs Provide Relief to Stressed Out Students. University of Californica, Riverside Newsroom. Retrieved from
  • Pullen, L.C. PhD. (2011, May 18). Animal-Assisted Therapy Can Decrease Anxiety Before an MRI. Medscape. 
  • Marcus, D.A. et al. (2013). Impact of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Outpatients with Fibromyalgia. 
  • O’Haire ME, McKenzie SJ, Beck AM, Slaughter V (2013). Social Behaviors Increase in Children with Autism in the Presence of Animals Compared to Toys. PLoS ONE 8(2)

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