Therapy Dogs and Animal-Assisted Therapy

Boy with autism and a therapy dog
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Animal-assisted therapy is the use of certified therapy animals as part of a therapeutic plan. Pet Partners, once known as the Delta Society, has described animal-assisted therapy as a "significant part of treatment for many people physically, socially, emotionally or cognitively challenged."

Patients in hospitals or assisted living homes often benefit from animal-assisted therapy, especially children and the elderly. All kinds of animals can make excellent therapy animals, including horses, cats, and even alpacas. However, dogs are by far the most common type, tapping into the unique bond canines and humans share.

History of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animals, especially dogs, have been assisting humans since the beginning of recorded history. They have helped us work, provided us with companionship, and lifted our spirits. However, it was not until the 20th century that animals were officially recognized for their therapeutic abilities.

In 1976, Elaine Smith founded Therapy Dogs International, the first registry for therapy dogs in the United States. One year later, the Delta Foundation (later named Delta Society and now known as Pet Partners) was formed to research the effects animals have on people’s lives. Today, these groups are just two of many others that help provide therapy animals to people in need of animal-assisted therapy.

American Humane established the Hero Dog Awards in 2011, an annual event recognizing extraordinary Hero Dogs and their trainer partners.

How Therapy Dogs Make a Difference

Animal-assisted therapy teams consist of a certified therapy animal and a trained handler. The handler is often the owner or co-owner of the dog. These animal-assisted therapy teams visit hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living centers, children's homes, schools, and other types of facilities to help lift spirits, facilitate recovery, and provide education.

Therapy dogs visit with the sick and elderly, sometimes simply sitting by the person's side and patiently being petted. Animal-assisted therapy patients may go on walks with therapy dogs, play games with them, feed them, or groom them. Therapy dogs may be trained to sit quietly and attentively while children read to them. Many can help their handlers teach students about dog care and safety. Some therapy dogs have disabilities or limitations of their own, serving as an inspiration to humans with disabilities.

People petting dog in group therapy session
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Qualities of an Ideal Therapy Dog

Dogs of any breed, size, or age may be eligible to become therapy dogs. However, not every dog is cut out to be a therapy animal. Whether they were bred specifically to work or they come from shelters or rescues, candidates must possess certain traits in order to qualify as therapy dogs.

Temperament is, by far, the most important trait. Before entering an animal-assisted therapy training program, the dog must be friendly, confident, non-aggressive, patient, calm, gentle, and receptive to training. The dog must get along remarkably well with men, women, children, and other animals. The dog should not be highly fearful or nervous. Socialization and a solid foundation of training are important for all dogs and puppies, but absolutely essential for a dog to be considered for a therapy program.

If your dog has some of the ideal qualities of a therapy dog but also has some undesirable traits (like being fearful or hyperactive) it doesn't mean the dog can't eventually become a therapy dog. You can take time to work on training and socialization now and your dog may eventually be ready to train for animal-assisted therapy. Training can take months or years depending on the dog.

Becoming a Therapy Team

Therapy dogs generally work with one dedicated handler. This is often, but not always, the dog's owner. If you'd like to become a therapy team with your dog, first make sure your dog has a solid foundation of basic training and is well-socialized. Then, you will likely need to give your dog more specialized training and provide additional socialization in order to prepare for the unusual environments of animal-assisted therapy.

Next, you must choose an animal-assisted therapy organization to join. There are numerous organizations to choose from. Some are national or international while others are regional/local. Each has its own set of guidelines, requirements, and policies. Research your options and decide which group sounds right for you and your dog. Contact the organizations if you have questions.

Once you have chosen an organization, you'll probably need to complete an application and provide certain documents. Then, you must be able to show that your dog can be relaxed, well-behaved, and responsive to you in many different environments and situations, both public and private. Most organizations have a special trial or test that you need to complete before becoming certified.