Pet Talk: Therapy Dogs

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Unlike service dogs, who are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities, therapy dogs interact with many different groups of people and help them deal with stress or overcome a physical or emotional challenge.

Additionally, there are other differences between service and therapy dogs. Service dogs should not be petted when on duty and have special privileges in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, such as access to restaurants and public transportation. These privileges do not apply to therapy dogs.

Kit Darling, Infection Control Coordinator for the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, explains the important duties of therapy dogs.

“Therapy dogs are trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, long-term care facilities, retirement homes, schools, and disaster areas,” Darling says. “Therapy dogs help people by doing animal-assisted activities or animal-assisted therapy.”

Animal-assisted activity is when a volunteer or handler takes the dog to a location to socialize with people. Darling explained that a child reading to a dog to improve reading skills or a dog providing stress relief for students studying are both examples of animal-assisted activity.

Animal-assisted therapy is when a certified therapist or healthcare professional uses a therapy dog as part of a treatment plan for an individual patient. Animal-assisted therapy can enhance physical, social, emotional, and cognitive functioning in a patient.

A therapist may use a therapy dog to help a patient needing physical, occupational, or speech therapy. “Some examples include brushing or petting the dog, throwing a toy for the dog to retrieve, and walking with the patient,” Darling explained.

Therapy dogs are important and may play a key role in a person’s recovery or stress management because they are non-judgmental and enjoy interacting with people no matter their physical or emotional state.

“Therapy dogs play a great role in reducing stress, including the stress of being in the hospital or nursing home, stress of waiting for a loved one that might be in surgery or ICU, or the stress of studying for a major exam. These wonderful dogs can also help increase human socialization. Sometimes a person may not respond to people, but are willing to respond to a therapy dog,” says Darling.

Though many of us feel our pets help us get through hard times, not every dog is fit to be a therapy dog. Darling says therapy dogs must enjoy meeting people of all ages they have not met previously and know basic obedience, such as walking nicely on a leash, sit, and stay. Additionally, the dog must be comfortable with being touched anywhere on their body, including their ear or tail. Sudden loud sounds and people hovering over them also should not scare them.

If you are interested in working with therapy dogs, socializing a puppy with many different people is a good start. Though some older dogs can be trained on basic commands and make great therapy dogs, some older dogs’ short temperament cannot be changed.

“If you have a new puppy and want to do this type of work, I suggest taking the puppy out in a variety of social situations, such as parks where kids can pet them, an outdoor restaurant that allows dogs, or a place with loud, strange noises. It is also helpful if the puppy is exposed to people using wheelchairs or walkers,” says Darling.

Though training any animal takes a lot of time and patience, therapy dogs make a big difference to those they help. In Darling’s case, she loves seeing the positive impacts her therapy dogs have on other people.

“Over the years, I have found it rewarding to see how one of my therapy dogs can brighten someone’s day,” she says.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed at vetmed.tamu.edu/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.