Therapy Dogs For Depression And Anxiety: Why I Love My Dog

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated April 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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 that can affect one’s physical health—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.

Read on to learn more about therapy dogs, related dog training and specific tasks and health problems that therapy animals can help with.

Therapy dogs can pair well with various modes of therapy

What are therapy dogs?

A service dog is trained to help someone who has a disability. Tasks a service dog can perform might include guiding their owner safely across the street, turning on lights or helping them retrieve items. Qualified service dogs are recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and may therefore be admitted to public places such as stores, restaurants and airplanes where non-certified pets may not be.

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 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 who has gone through a therapy dog program. 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. Through this study, scientists learned that 84% of individuals in the study reported a significant reduction in symptoms, and 40% were able to decrease their medication.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

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 care for and 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 through any health problems they experience. 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 or a native hospital program can help lift a patient’s spirits to aid in their recovery.

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Therapy dogs can pair well with various modes of therapy

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, bringing smiles and novelty to their days—all 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.

This can be especially important for people looking for the canine “good things” without the responsibility or costs of bringing a dog home—which may not be allowed in some residential living situations. While Betterpet and the American Kennel Club publish helpful articles on the best dogs for apartments, many landlords cannot allow pets on premises depending on the current requirements and rules for the specific building or space. 

College students

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.

Universities took note of this; with many pursuing therapy dog program elements in common public spaces on campus. This is particularly common to see around finals week or other times of stress that university students might expeirence. 

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.

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