How Does A Therapy Dog Really Work?

By Rachel Lustbader|Updated June 28, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Kimberly L Brownridge , LPC, NCC, BCPC Counsel The Mind, LLC
Therapy dogs are psychiatric service dogs that help people with mental health diseases that interfere with their daily lives. These dogs are professionally trained and certified to provide comfort and support as well as perform other tasks such as retrieving medication or water for anxiety attacks, bringing the patient a phone, getting help for a patient if needed, and providing pressure against the patient or licking their face when they are having an episode.

What Types of Conditions Are Treated with a Therapy Dog?

Learn More About Dog Therapy And Other Treatment Options

Only those with serious mental health disorders are able to get therapy dogs, and they have to be approved by a medical doctor to be covered by your insurance. Some of the criteria you need to meet to be eligible are the following:

  • Have a serious disability or illness that disrupts your daily life
  • Ability to care for and command the dog
  • Participation in your therapy dog's training process
  • Have a stable home for you and your therapy dog

You also have to be diagnosed by a physician with one of the following disorders:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Fear/Phobia
  • Panic attack
  • Mood disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorder

How Did They Get Started?

Therapy animals have been used since the 1600s when an English Quaker health retreat had their mentally ill patients interact with the animals they kept at the retreat. The animals used were not just dogs. Even horses and pigs were found to be cathartic to those experiencing mental health disorders. In fact, Sigmund Freud brought his dog with him to psychoanalysis meetings with patients. A child psychologist named Boris Levinson wrote about the excellent effect his dog, Jingles, had on the patients he treated.

How Does Having a Therapy Dog Help?

Although there is much debate about whether the human-animal interaction is effective, many studies have found it to have a small to medium effect on easing distress and helping improve patients' mental health at the very least. According to these studies, just being in the presence of an animal, caring for it, and petting it can reduce stress in both children and adults. Actually, these studies have found that just looking at an animal can reduce stress levels in people. However, it is not completely clear how the animal helps to reduce stress and how long it lasts. Some studies claim that it is a short term improvement and does not last but when therapy dogs are available on a daily basis to help with tasks or get help when needed, the benefits are clear.
 

What Kinds of Dogs Are Used?

Just about all dogs can be therapy dogs, but there are certain breeds that are better suited to the job because of their intelligence and temperament. Some of the most popular dog breeds for therapy include:

Labrador Retriever

The Labrador is the most popular breed of dog in the United States for many reasons, and it is also the number one choice of dogs for therapy work. They are gentle, intelligent, good with new people, and extremely obedient, making them great therapy dogs.

German Shepherd

This is also one of the most popular breeds in the United States and is the second choice for therapy dogs. They are not just gentle but also loyal and smart. These dogs are also good at sensing human feelings, so they are able to tell when something is wrong even before the patient or anyone else does.

Greyhound
 
Although this breed does not seem like it would be a good therapy dog, it is known for its affectionate demeanor and quiet loyalty. They are also excellent at sensing things that are out of place or unusual. They do not bark and enjoy curling up with their humans.
 
Beagle
 
The Beagle may be a small dog, but it has a big heart and loves to cuddle. They are friendly, good with new people, and can get along with other animals. While they may look like they should be outside hunting, they are serious about keeping their human happy.
 
Standard Poodle
 
The Poodle is known as the most intelligent dog breed and always strives to keep its owner happy. This makes this breed an excellent choice for becoming a therapy dog. They are also especially affectionate and enjoy human contact.
 
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
 
This cute breed has been used as a companion to fight depression for many years due to its love of cuddling and was even nicknamed the "love sponge" by Animal Planet. Because they are so easy to train and love children, they make a superior choice for a home with youngsters.
 
Golden Retriever
 
The Golden, like the Labrador, is a very affectionate and lovable breed that enjoys attention and is loyal to their human. They are also very well-behaved and easy to train, happy to play all day long or lay in bed with patients if that is what the patients want to do.
 
Rottweiler

Although many people falsely believe that this breed is dangerous, these are actually one of the most calm and friendly breeds there are and make excellent therapy dogs. They are also extremely smart and make friends easily but will protect their human from anyone.

Saint Bernard
 
The Saint Bernard is one of those gentle giants that will tolerate just about anything without getting mad. They are big and cuddly, while also being strong and fearless. Their patience is unending, and they will not snap at children who are jumping on them or pulling their tails.
 
Pug
 
The Pug is a small dog with wrinkled skin and a grumpy looking face. However, they are very friendly and fun with an extreme desire to please their humans. They get along well with anyone at any age but are especially good with young ones who are suffering from autism spectrum disorder.
 
How Does It Really Help?

There is no real proof of how or why having therapy dogs makes a patient feel better but there are theories. Some say they help by giving the patient unconditional love while others say it is because the patient has to take care of them and it gives them a purpose.

Purpose

For example, if a depressed patient is feeling like they have nobody who cares about them and they are considering suicide, they are less likely to do so if they have a dog they have to take care of. It gives the patient a reason to get up in the morning and can even help them feel better by encouraging them to go for walks or play catch.
 
Responsibility
Having a dog to take care of also gives the patient a daily schedule that they have to follow, which has been proven to be good for all mental health conditions. When an individual is depressed or anxious, they sometimes do not feel like there is any reason to get out of bed and do anything. However, if they have to get up to feed their dog or take their dog for a walk, they have no choice but to get up and do these things. The routine helps the patient stay on track and feel more stable.
 
Social Interactions
Having a dog means the patient will have to go outside at least sometimes to walk the dog, go to the dog park, or go see the veterinarian. This can encourage the patient to have social interaction with others even though they may not feel like doing so. In turn, this will help them feel more positive and social.
 
Improves Health
According to research, having a dog not only makes the mind feel better but can also improve the patient's physical health. Studies have found that dogs can lower your heart rate, decrease blood pressure, reduce stress, and boost endorphins. Those are the chemicals in the brain that make you feel good. One study even showed that dog owners slept better and got sick less often.
 
Different Types 

To be clear, there are several types of therapy dogs that have their own distinctions according to law.

Learn More About Dog Therapy And Other Treatment Options

  • A therapy dog is trained to provide affection and comfort to people and has to pass a Canine Good Citizen test. However, they are not certified to go into public places with the owner as a service dog.
  • An emotional support dog is one that provides companionship and motivation to individuals who have a mental health disability. They have to be trained well and pass a Canine Good Citizen test as well. Some are certified to go into public places with the owner as a service dog.
  • A psychiatric service dog is also known as a mental health service dog and is extensively trained to provide assistance to those with a serious mental impairment that impacts their daily lives. They are able to accompany their owner everywhere, including school, work, restaurants, and airplanes. These dogs are required to be trained to do a minimum of three tasks that will directly help their owner with their disability needs.
Some of these dogs are trained to know when their owner is about to have an anxiety or panic attack, a post-traumatic stress disorder flashback, or another type of mental health issue. They are taught to make physical contact with their owner to interrupt their attack and distract them from their own issues. The dog can be trained to put pressure in certain areas of the body known to comfort them. In addition, certain dogs are able to go get help from someone when their owner needs assistance.
 
What if a Therapy Dog is Not an Option?

Many factors can go into the decision not to get a therapy dog, such as allergies, a partner who doesn’t want an animal in the household, and a busy schedule. If this is the case for you, you might want to consider meeting with a therapist. A therapist can help you address issues and manage symptoms stemming from a mental disorder. You can either meet a therapist face-to-face or meet with one online. One thing to note is that online therapy is as beneficial as in-person therapy.

If You Need to Talk

If you are feeling like you need to talk right now, you can speak to a therapist online or on the phone by contacting BetterHelp. There are over 2,000 licensed therapists ready to help you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and from the comfort of your own home. Below, you’ll find a couple of reviews from clients who benefitted from BetterHelp’s online therapists.

Counselor Reviews

“Jessica is amazing. She helps me work through my stressors in a natural way. She is wonderful to work with.” 

“Kathryn has been an ever-present source of stability and calm during a few tumultuous years. She never fails to show up and be 100% there for you during sessions. She is very mailable and will act as your mirror, friend, guide or counsel, depending on what you need from her. I feel very lucky to have worked with her.” 

Commonly Asked Questions

What is the best dog for a therapy dog?
What do therapy dogs do?
How do I make my dog a therapy animal?
Is it OK to pet a therapy dog?
What breed of dog is best for anxiety and depression?
Do dogs help with anxiety and depression?
What is the difference between an emotional support dog and a therapy dog?
What skills do therapy dogs need?
How do I train my emotional support dog for anxiety?
Why do hospitals use therapy dogs?

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