Therapy Dogs and Animal-Assisted Therapy

Boy with autism and a therapy dog
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Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) 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 nursing homes -- especially children and the elderly -- often benefit from AAT. While animals such as horses and cats can make excellent therapy animals, 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 U.S. One year later, the Delta Foundation (later named Delta Society, 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 AAT.

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. These teams visit hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living centers, children's homes, and other similar facilities to help lift spirits and facilitate recovery.

Therapy dogs visit with the sick and elderly, sometimes simply sitting by the person's side and patiently being petted. AAT patients may walk therapy dogs, play with them, feed them, or groom them. Some therapy dogs are trained to sit quietly and attentively while children read to them. Many 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 bred specifically to train for tasks or coming 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 AAT training program, the dog candidate must be friendly and non-aggressive. It must get along remarkably well with men, women, children, and other animals. The dog should also be confident, patient, calm, gentle, and receptive to training. 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.

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, you must both complete a thorough training program. 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.