Dogs have long been known to be man’s best friend, and there’s a good reason for that.
Research has been done on the benefits to people of having sessions with a therapy dog in various settings, including in schools, nursing homes, and hospitals. The results show that dogs can reduce stress, improve social and academic skills and lower blood pressure, to name a few. What’s even more impressive is that people don’t even have to pet the dogs, simply being in their company is enough. Any dog can become a therapy dog, but they should be friendly so that they will be good with people and have a calm temperament for dealing with the various situations that being a therapy dog will put them in. It’s also essential that they’re in good health and well trained.
How to Qualify as a Therapy Dog
There’s currently no qualification, training, certification or registration that dogs have to have in order to be a therapy dog, but some organizations will require certain test certificates and criteria to be met in order to let a therapy dog visit them. Owners should contact the organization they want to take their therapy dog to find beforehand out what their requirements are.
Before anything else, therapy dogs should be well socialized, calm, friendly, patient, well-behaved and happy to be petted and coaxed by strangers. This is something that some dogs will naturally love or hate, and it can be difficult to teach. Therapy dogs may be part of a therapy session helping anxious children or elderly people with dementia, and everything in between. They may also be exposed to unfamiliar environments, such as loud machines in hospitals, disaster areas, and busy schools, so they need to be happy to trust people and be able to feel confident in all types of scenarios.
Ideal Qualifications for Therapy Dogs
Some therapy groups will require therapy dogs to pass the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test as it proves that they know basic commands, like sit and stay, that they can behave well around other dogs and that they are well socialized with people too. Following this, owners should research local animal therapy groups to find out what their requirements are and choose which therapy setting their dog will work best in, such as a school or a nursing home. Documentation of a dogs health may also be required, such as proving that they’re up-to-date on vaccinations, have routine treatment for flea, ticks, and worms, and that they have an overall clean bill of health approved by their vet.
As therapy dogs are different from service dogs, they don’t have the same rights and cannot go into most places without being invited first. Even once the owner and dog are invited, not everyone in the building may know what they’re there for and it can result in being asked to leave or questioned on what they’re doing if they don’t have any identification. Registering dogs for therapy work gets them their own ID badge, which will have their handlers name on too, an identifying jacket and a certificate. This will help people who don’t know that there are animal therapy sessions going on quickly to know why a dog is walking around a hospital or school, making the visit go a lot smoother.
The Benefits of Therapy Dogs for Others
Lots of research has been done into the benefits of animals, specifically dogs, in a therapy session, ranging from making children feel better about going to school to helping ill people cope in hospital. Research has found that therapy dogs can help to lower blood pressure, increase dopamine and serotonin levels, reduce stress, help with social skills and boost self-confidence, particularly for reading skills. A major study by American Humane that was carried out over seven years found that regular visits from therapy dogs provided significant psychological benefits to families of children who were undergoing treatment for cancer. It’s believed this is down to their friendly, non-judgment nature, where they’re happy to meet new people and love to be petted and cuddled, which people love to do to them, making it the perfect combination.
The Benefits for Owners/Handlers
Owners who choose for their dog become a therapy dog often have a strong bond with their pet that they want to share with others. Going through training together can strengthen that bond, as well as helping dogs to become more obedient, happy and confident in all situations, including at home. Plus, owners get to spend plenty of time with their dogs at the therapy sessions. Owners also get to benefit from watching their dogs making other people feel better, which can be really rewarding to see.
The Potential Cons of Therapy Dogs
Anyone who is a dog lover will struggle to understand that some people just don’t like dogs. Therapy dogs will probably want to say hi to everyone, so it’s important that they’re taught only to do this when their handler says that they can. Going into a school to help anxious children where a child is terrified of dogs will probably make them feel worse, not better. Some people are allergic to dogs, which is another reason why they will want to keep their distance. It’s important both owners and dogs know this and only approach people the therapy sessions that want to be involved. There’s also a chance of a dog becoming startled and reacting badly, such as barking, clawing or biting. Intentionally or not, this can be really bad, but it’s something that should be accepted as a possibility. Organizations should have insurance for situations like this before letting therapy dogs in.
Do Dogs Enjoy Their Work?
Dogs are known to be happy animals, especially when they’re part of a loving family. But do dogs that have jobs actually enjoy it? There’s been a lot of research into whether they benefit people, but some studies have looked into whether working stresses dogs out or if they enjoy doing it. A study from Applied Animal Behavior Science reported that therapy dogs in pediatric cancer wards were not stressed. The study was done using 26 dogs across five different hospitals. Cortisol levels from tongue swabs were taken to measure stress at home and at the hospital. No changes were found, showing that the dogs were not stressed. Another study backed up these findings by studying a dog’s behavior during therapy sessions, finding that most of them appeared happy.
American Kennel Club recognition
The American Kennel Club runs a program to help recognize the good work done by both therapy dogs and their owners. They do not qualify therapy dogs themselves, but award official AKC titles to therapy dogs based on how many times they visit people to improve their lives. Dogs must be qualified therapy dogs by organizations that the AKC recognize in order to receive one of their titles. Once therapy dogs have done ten therapy visits, they can receive the AKC Therapy Novice Dog title. Other titles include Advanced, Excellent and Distinguished, going up to 400 visits for therapy sessions.
Difference Between Therapy Dogs are Service Dogs
Therapy dogs serve a good purpose that is valuable to many people, but they do differ from service dogs. Service dogs will be specially trained to assist people with disabilities, such as helping them to reach things or guiding blind people. They are, by law, allowed special access where dogs can’t usually go, such as on airplanes, into shops and restaurants. Therapy dogs don’t get these privileges, but some establishments may choose to let them in.
Best Large Breeds for Therapy Dogs
Any breed can become a therapy dog as it comes down to their temperament as an individual and how well trained they are. However, some breeds are known for having characteristics that make them perfect therapy dogs. Larger breeds are good therapy dogs for people who can’t bend down to pet them, such as people in wheelchairs or elderly people with age-related mobility problems. Golden Retrievers and Labradors are known for their friendly nature and can be easy to train, making them a great option. German Shepherd’s also make a good choice as they’re calm and restrained by nature and love to keep busy.
Best Smaller Breeds
Smaller breeds can be good therapy dogs for children and for anyone who wants to have a dog sit on their lap for close-up doggy affection. The Bichon Frise is a great option as their coat is non-shedding so fur won’t get left behind in hospitals or nursing homes where it doesn’t belong. Bichon’s have a very friendly nature and are generally happy dogs, making them the perfect companion. Poodles of all sizes are similar to Bichon’s and have the same temperament and type of coat as them. Their coat also feels different from most dog’s, making them a nice, soft and calming dog to coax, perfect for therapy.
Therapy dogs have a lot to give and have been proven to be beneficial for various physical, psychological and social problems, as well as for all different age groups. Getting your dog ready to be a therapy dog does require lots of training, but the rewards for owners, dogs and the people that they help will always be worth it in the end. It’s also nice that your dog can receive recognition from the American Kennel Club and to know that they are enjoying themselves too.