The concept of animal assisted therapy has been around for a long time. When you think of this topic, you might picture a service dog that aids a person with a physical disability like severe visual impairment or blindness. These dogs do important and even life-saving work. However, dogs who aren’t as highly trained can also be helpful to humans—both those who have physical or mental health conditions and those who simply need a mood boost. The latter are known as therapy dogs. While they’re not as highly trained as service dogs, therapy dogs can still provide comfort and positive outcomes to those who interact with them.
What Are Therapy Dogs?
Therapy dogs, such as those in a therapy dog program, are not legally recognized and may not be taken into spaces where pets are not allowed. These dogs, including larger breeds, are trained to provide comfort, love, and affection to people, such as adults or families, in various settings. They often have a therapy dog certification from a recognized institution like Therapy Dogs International or the American Kennel Club.
The concept of using dogs and other animals such as cats or small animals, to bring smiles and joy began gaining attention in popular culture in 1976 when Elaine Smith founded Therapy Dogs International. She observed the positive responses when a visiting chaplain brought his golden retriever, and she aimed to extend these benefits to others.
Who Can Benefit From Spending Time With Therapy Dogs?
Although this area of study is relatively new, there is some scientific evidence to support the idea that spending time with animals and therapy dogs—even if they aren’t trained for animal therapy as part of a therapy dog organization—may be beneficial to a person’s health. For instance, research suggests that petting or talking to animals may decrease a person's levels of cortisol—the stress hormone—reduce feelings of loneliness, and bring smiles, boosting mood. With these general, positive effects in mind, there are a few specific groups of people, like individuals experiencing pain or a panic attack, who may benefit from spending time with a trained therapy dog. Let's take a closer look at a few of them.
People With Anxiety Disorders
As mentioned, time spent with animals may decrease levels of cortisol in the body and increase levels of oxytocin—the “feel-good” hormone—which can contribute to feelings of relaxation. This effect can be helpful to those experiencing anxiety disorders. One study found that those who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can benefit from interacting with therapy or service dogs: 84% of individuals in the study reported a significant reduction in symptoms and 40% were able to decrease their medication.
Patients In The Hospital For Physical Illnesses
Do therapy dogs work? Many hospitals, especially children’s hospitals, have witnessed positive results from bringing in therapy dogs to interact with the patients. As outlined above, they can help reduce cortisol and increase oxytocin in those who spend time with them. However, according to research, therapy dogs can also motivate those in the hospital or another facility to “come out of their shells” and take important steps for their own healing. For example, patients might feel encouraged to have more positive interactions with hospital staff, get up and move around the room, and successfully do things that may be difficult for them, such as taking their medication or participating in therapy. In other words, a visiting therapy dog can help lift a patient’s spirits to aid in their recovery.
Residents Of Retirement/Nursing Homes
Residents of retirement or nursing homes, unable to keep pets or attend obedience classes, often find comfort and joy in visits from therapy dogs and their volunteer owners. The dogs can counter loneliness bring smiles, and novelty to their days, while providing a sense of companionship and physical affection. Moreover, therapy dogs have been tested to help improve cognition and communication in those experiencing some forms of cognitive impairment such as dementia.
The transition from living at home to attending college full-time can be challenging for some students. Depression rates among college students and non-students in this age group are on the rise. Interacting with therapy dogs or watching videos of other dogs can help students experience positive mental health outcomes. One study found that such interactions led to reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety and improved mood overall, which can help students adjust to their new environment and become part of a team.
Other Ways To Seek Mental Health Support
Spending time with therapy dogs may improve mood and quality of life for people in a variety of different circumstances. However, it’s not a replacement for clinical mental healthcare such as talk therapy for those with a mental health condition. If you’re experiencing symptoms of such a condition, meeting with a trained therapist may be beneficial. Research suggests that both online and in-person therapy can offer similar benefits in most cases, so you can feel confident in choosing the therapy format that feels right for you.
If you're interested in exploring virtual therapy, you might consider trying a platform like BetterHelp. You can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the challenges you may be facing. There are a variety of reasons someone might opt for this method rather than in-person sessions. Some people simply prefer to meet with a therapist from the comfort of their own home than in person in an office. Others may have trouble locating a provider in their area, or may not have contacts to reliable transportation to get to and from appointments. Plus, online therapy is often more cost-effective than in-office sessions.
While interacting with therapy dogs can have a positive effect on human well-being, it is important to remember that they are not a replacement for professional medical care. If you are struggling with your mental health, it is crucial to seek help from a licensed therapist or medical professional. Therapy dogs can be found in various settings, such as hospitals, retirement homes, and other facilities where trained volunteers bring them to help bring comfort and joy to patients and family alike.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What are the best therapy dogs?
Most dogs can be trained to become emotional support animals or therapy dogs; however, some breeds are naturally better suited to the work. These are some of the best dog breeds to become therapy dogs per the national alliance of therapy dogs:
- Labrador retriever
- Yorkshire terrier
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
- Golden retriever
- German shepherd
Not all therapy dogs are emotional support animals, and they are not considered service dogs. Animal assisted therapy is becoming a much more popular option for many people experiencing mental illness. Therapy dogs are more important than ever now.
With so many people affected during the pandemic, therapy dogs are more important. A therapy dog can help during the lockdown and even after the pandemic to help you cope.
How do I train my dog to be a therapy dog?
Typically, a therapy dog must be at least a year old before they can be trained to be a therapy dog. Most dog organizations that train therapy dogs will not allow any under a year. In addition, the dog must be trainable. That mean they must go through obedience training and pass the course to be able to train to become a therapy dog.
This is important, because a therapy dog must be obedient, mild mannered, and be able to respond to commands accurately. They must also be friendly, calm, and social with strangers. If your dog only reacts well to you and no one else, they will not be a good therapy dog.
Your dog should also be comfortable about going to new places, meeting new people, and being around new scents and potentially loud sounds.
To officially train your dog to be a therapy dog, they must learn a set of 10 commands as well as be properly socialized toward new people. While you can train your dog on your own, it is recommended to put them through an official therapy dog training course.
What is a therapy dog used for?
Per the national alliance of therapy dogs, therapy dogs are different from service animals or emotional support animals in that they require less training and documentation to make them official. This also means that they are not specifically trained to help with any specific physical or mental conditions as service or ESA dogs are.
Therapy dogs are used in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and for personal use. They are affectionate and social dogs that bring comfort and relief to those who are experiencing extremely difficult and uncomfortable situations.
What is the best therapy dog for depression?
Any of the dogs listed above can be trained to be therapy dogs to help people with depression.
Can I train my dog myself?
It is definitely possible to train your dog to be a therapy dog by yourself, however it is very difficult. There are many commands that they need to learn, they have to be taught obedience, and they must learn how to socialize in a wide variety of settings and with a large number of people. It is more efficient to have them professionally trained and by doing so you will receive official certification for them.
- How long does it take to train a therapy dog?
According to the national alliance of therapy dogs, on average, it takes at least two years to properly train your dog to become a service dog. This timeline is variable depending on your dog's age, behavior, intelligence level, and breed. It should also be stressed that you should take the time to train your dog properly and not rush through the training.
If training is rushed, then the dog may forget important commands, may not be properly trained to perform in certain situations, or may not be properly socialized which can lead to a dangerous or uncomfortable situation. Training a therapy dog is a lengthy and time-consuming process, but it is an incredibly important process that must be done properly.
- How can I certify my dog as a therapy dog online?
It is possible to certify your dog online as a therapy dog. The United States service dog registration website can walk you through the registration process as well as tell you everything that needs to be done before your dog can be registered.
- Do Therapy Dogs actually work?
Absolutely. For many people regular dogs are extremely good companions and are known to provide comfort when you are stressed, sad, or feeling ill. It is no surprise then that dogs that are specifically trained to provide comfort to people who are depressed, sick, or in a bad situation can make a huge difference in someone’s mental health.
- Do Therapy dogs help with anxiety?
While they are not specifically trained in pet therapy to notice and help prevent anxiety attacks like emotional support animals are, therapy dogs can help people with anxiety. They provide comfort, reduce loneliness, and provide a mental escape for people from their anxious thoughts.
- Can dogs sense anxiety?
Dogs are very sensitive to the scents caused by hormonal changes in humans. Thus, when your cortisol levels raise as the result of panic or anxiety, a dog can sense the change. Not all dogs immediately know what to do or how to help you during an anxiety attack however, and some that are not trained may become anxious or agitated themselves at your distress.
Emotional support dogs are specifically trained in pet therapy to sense anxiety attacks before they happen and work to calm you down, bring you medications, or bring you a phone to call for help.
Do dogs remember people?
Absolutely! While it is believed that dogs don’t remember specific events, they do associate people with the way they made them feel. Memories are tied to feelings in a dog's mind, so if they associated you with positive attention, they will remember and be excited to see you again.
Similarly, if a dog has been mistreated by a person, they will remember that person and react negatively or fearfully around them.
- How do you calm a stressed dog?
Some of the best ways to calm a stressed and anxious dog are exercise, soothing touch, and having a safe space that they can retreat to. It can also help your pup to have homemade summer treats on hand to give them. Homemade summer treats are especially important during the hot months to keep your dog cool this summer and to keep them relaxed.
- What is the difference between a service dog and a therapy dog?
According to the national alliance of therapy dogs, a service dog is a specifically licensed and trained dog that helps people with a disability. Only certain breeds can become service dogs and they require extensive training to learn how to help people do things that they cannot do for themselves. Service dogs are usually trained to help one specific person,
Therapy dogs on the other hand undergo training to be social and calming to a large number of people and are usually taken to places like nursing homes or hospitals to provide comfort. They are not trained to specifically help anyone with any medical condition, whether it is physical or mental.
- How do I train my dog to be an emotional support dog?
The training is similar to a therapy dog’s training; however, you can begin to train your dog when they are a puppy in this instance because they will only be working with you. You will need a prescription for an ESA from your doctor or therapist, and they will need to go through extensive obedience and command training before they can be licensed as an ESA. Here is a detailed guide on how to train your dog to become an ESA.
- How do I find a legitimate emotional support animal?
You must first receive a prescription from your doctor or therapist for an ESA. Once obtained, you should ask them where you can find an already trained, certified therapy dog if you don’t want to go through the training process yourself.
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