Therapy FAQ

How Therapy Dogs Can Improve Your Mental Wellness

Dog-lovers already understand the role our “best friends” (i.e. dogs) play in our daily lives. It’s hard to deny there’s something magical and comforting about cuddling up with a good boy or girl, so it makes sense that these loyal canines can also provide therapeutic value in many different ways.  The therapeutic role of dogs, […]

Author Generic Image By Grow Therapy
Elderly woman with therapy dog.

Updated on May 21, 2024

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Dog-lovers already understand the role our “best friends” (i.e. dogs) play in our daily lives. It’s hard to deny there’s something magical and comforting about cuddling up with a good boy or girl, so it makes sense that these loyal canines can also provide therapeutic value in many different ways. 

The therapeutic role of dogs, the mental and physical benefits they offer, and the distinctions between therapy dogs, service dogs, and emotional support animals have recently gained prominence. But when did this happen, what are the mental and physical benefits, and what makes one dog more qualified than another? 

What is a Therapy Dog? 

In the simplest terms, a therapy dog is classified as a type of working canine. While the name implies these dogs are trained to provide or aid in a form of therapy, that is not necessarily the case. Rather, the role of a therapy dog is more along the lines of providing “comfort, affection, and even love in the course of their work.” 

Typically, these dogs work in various settings, frequently as volunteers with a dog handler or dog owner. For example, they might visit a pediatric hospital, nursing home, hospice facilities, local disaster sites, or even therapy sessions in the case of animal-assisted therapy. In these situations, therapy dogs help relieve stress, anxietyloneliness, and people dealing with trauma

There are several main categories of therapy dogs:

Therapeutic Visitation Animals: These dogs are trained and taken to various settings to provide relief, affection, and joy to people in an in-patient facility. 

Disaster Relief Dogs: Similar to therapeutic visitation dogs, disaster relief dogs offer comfort and solace to individuals who have undergone traumatic or violent experiences.

Animal-Assisted Therapy Animals: Dogs working alongside physical and occupational therapists in clinical and rehabilitation facilities to assist with therapies and comfort patients. 

Facility Therapy Animals: The dogs that work in nursing homes or hospitals. These pets are cared for by the facility and help residents with mental illnesses, dementia, and other ailments. 

Their Role Over the Years

Evidence of dogs used in therapeutic ways dates back to Ancient Greece; however, their presence in modern clinical spaces is far more recent. It was not until the 1960s that research with animal therapy even began.

Dr. Segmund Freud’s work further supported the research of Dr. Boris Levinson and his initial findings that dogs had a positive effect on patients by making them appear more comfortable. Levinson found that his normally withdrawn, non-verbal therapy patient began interacting with a dog named Jingles during a session. This unplanned interaction inspired and laid the foundation of Levinson’s work with animal-assisted interventions. 

This theory was further tested empirically with the work of Samuel Corson and Elizabeth O’Leary Corson in the 1970s. In their findings, patients with psychiatric disorders were shown to have less difficulty communicating in the presence of a dog. The results from the work done in the 60s and 70s led scientists to further explore the biological, psychological, and social influences dogs have on humans.

It’s even been confirmed that the use of therapy dogs has both mental and physical benefits. Studies have shown that not only do pets help reduce stress and anxiety in psychiatric patients, but their presence also helps people live longer.  

Today, therapy dogs are found working in places like schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and even at the site of disasters, such as mass casualty events, natural disasters, and other environments where people are dealing with immediate trauma. Their ability to comfort someone or even boost a person’s self-esteem in a difficult situation, paired with their loving nature, make them perfect additions to gloomy and stressful situations. 

How Therapy Dogs Differ from Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals 

It’s a common misconception that therapy dogs, service dogs, and emotional support dogs are all the same. Each of these distinct types of working dogs operates in a different sphere. While they may intersect and be certified in multiple areas, they are not carrying out the same objective. 

Therapy Dogs

The primary goal of a therapy dog is to provide affection, relief, and comfort to people in different settings outside of the home. These dogs are also not trained to assist a specific individual. Instead, therapy dogs are traditionally volunteers working with multiple people alongside their handlers in long-term care facilities, clinical and medical settings, schools, and courtrooms. Additionally, they provide support after traumatic events and help bring comfort to the survivors of domestic abuse.  

Service Dogs

Unlike therapy dogs, service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks that allow them to help disabled people with everyday activities. Think of someone who uses a wheelchair and may need additional assistance and could benefit from animal-assisted activities. Furthermore, a service animal’s work must be specifically related to their handler and their disability. 

Here are some of the unique forms of service dogs:

What makes service dogs especially unique from therapy dogs is the fact that they are legally allowed to go everywhere, including businesses, and private and public facilities. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), this is a protection portion of a disabled person’s right to care.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) serve as companion animals, providing relief for anxiety, depression, certain phobias, and loneliness. While these dogs may not be trained to perform a specific task, they are trained to support a specific individual. 

At present, the term ESA is often misused for household pets. Various animals can be trained and accredited as emotional support animals, but there’s a lack of federal regulation in their training and accreditation process. 

Much like service dogs, ESAs are entitled to some legal rights; however, they’re more limited than the rights of service dogs, and many individuals ask service providers and medical professionals to furnish letters affirming their family pets as ESAs to bypass pet policies in housing or to bring them on flights.

Therapy Dogs and Overall Health

So we know dogs are great at cuddling, playing fetch, and digging holes, but is there truly any significant benefit to including using them for therapeutic support? For Stephanie Roelofs, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with Grow Therapy, the answer is ‘yes!’ 

“Dogs are great at providing therapeutic support. Dogs can provide emotional support as their presence can be comforting, which reduces feelings of depression, anxiety, (and other negative feelings),” she said. 

How Therapy Dogs Impact Mental Health  

It’s hard not to notice the hit of serotonin we get when we see a dog. So, it’s easy to deduce that they have a profoundly positive impact on mental well-being. 

But you don’t just have to trust your gut on this one, research has proved it! Dr. Levinson discovered that the addition of a dog into an environment made his young, mentally ill patient far more relaxed. These findings were later confirmed by other medical professionals and researchers, including Dr. Freud. 

Overall, scientists agree, based on the biopsychosocial model, that dogs impact human health and well-being. Some psychological influences include influence over and changes in personality, emotions, and mood. When it comes to dogs, researchers conclude they help lessen the effects of depression, anxiety, and loneliness while improving motivation and happiness. 

Today, therapy dogs are used to help people deal with an array of complex emotions surrounding less-than-ideal situations. Some therapy dogs respond to the scene of tragic accidents to help grieving people. The fact that dogs possess the ability to read human facial expressions and discern emotional tones of voice could be helpful in these instances. 

Others visit children’s hospitals and retirement homes to brighten the day and break through the loneliness so many patients experience. Did you know that petting a dog for just ten minutes can help relieve stress?

How Therapy Dogs Impact Physical Health  

Based on the evidence collected using the biopsychosocial model, we know the influence of dogs in therapy extends beyond the psychological and into the biological and social. Some biological influences include assessments of stress, anxiety, and arousal. 

While their effect on patients with depression and anxiety is oftentimes plain to see, they can also impact your physical health and social well-being. On average, people who own a dog live longer. You see, studies have shown that owning and spending time around dogs, even in short amounts of time, results in biomarker evidence of reduced stress, lower blood pressure, and lower cortisol levels. 

Furthermore, their influence on cortisol levels is particularly intriguing when it comes to the therapeutic world. Cortisol is the steroid stress hormone and controls your “fight or flight” response. For people with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism spectrum disorder (ADS), or special needs, this reduction in cortisol is vastly beneficial. Certain experimental studies suggest that having a dog around during stressful situations could impact how a person responds to stress and secretes cortisol.

Additional research conducted in assisted living facilities found that the presence of dogs in the facility versus human visitors led to a decrease in anxiety, confusion, depression, fatigue, and tension among residents. As these symptoms subsided, the resident’s overall quality of health and life improved. 

Countless other studies have been conducted showing similar results, leading to the safe conclusion that therapy dogs can also impact physical health. This is in part because dogs help reduce stress, and when we’re not experiencing a stressful situation or are in survival mode, our physical health tends to improve. 

What to Look For In a Therapy Dog 

A therapy dog can take many forms, depending on the breed of dog. However, the breed of dog isn’t necessarily the most important qualification. Neither is their age. No one authority or therapy dog program is out touting labradors and golden retrievers as superior to small animals when it comes to effective therapy.

The most crucial points to consider are things like temperament, trainability, energy levels, and the amount of care and grooming the dog will need. A good therapy dog must be well acquainted with the human touch and maintain a calm demeanor in a multitude of public places, as well as tense and sometimes stressful situations. If it fails to meet these criteria, there is a high chance the dog will fail any therapy dog certification courses offered by places like the American Kennel Club or nonprofit organizations.  

“Therapy dogs should display good behavior at all times. Therapy dogs and owners must have a strong bond to be able to be successful in this role,” Roelofs says. 

Temperament

This may be the most important aspect of a dog’s personality to consider when debating if they would make a good therapy dog. To do the best job possible, a dog must be very well-mannered and outgoing. It’s crucial they also not get easily overwhelmed and are comfortable being touched by multiple people – sometimes simultaneously. 

Energy Level

Often, a therapy dog will visit children in a hospital or the elderly, so the dog in question mustn’t be overly rambunctious, as it could lead to injuries.This isn’t to say that therapy dogs do not need to be playful; it’s just important the dog be able to discern what level of play and affection is appropriate in any given situation and have adequate opportunities to release its energy by playing with its owners. 

Size

The size of the therapy dog isn’t a set standard. There are benefits to both small and large breeds of dogs in this line of work. Small dogs can be held, cuddled, and easily transported, while larger breeds tend to do well with children. It’s purely situational and depends on the dog’s type of therapy work. 

Care and Grooming

Another important factor is the care and grooming necessary to keep the therapy dog happy and healthy. This includes keeping the dog up to date on all vaccinations. Therapy dogs must be well taken care of and loved at home. It is part of the animal being well-socialized. Plus, it’s always nice to love on a sweet dog that smells good! 

An Effective Addition To Therapy 

In the realm of pet therapy, the magic of canine companionship is more than just comforting; it’s transformative. Through their affection, therapy dogs offer a unique solace, alleviating stress, anxiety, and loneliness in various settings. Besides emotional comfort, studies reveal dogs can enhance mental health by reducing stress and anxiety, promoting longevity. Their role in places like hospitals, schools, and disaster sites makes them invaluable in aiding individuals coping with immediate trauma. Understanding their impact on mental and physical health is crucial, highlighting their contributions to improving overall well-being. They truly are “man’s best friend.”  

FAQs

  • No one breed is more suited to become a therapy dog than another. However, size and temperament are important factors to consider, along with breed standards. The size of the dog generally depends on what type of therapy the dog provides and to whom.

  • No, not typically. While healthcare insurance will sometimes cover service dogs and ESAs, therapy dogs generally do not fall within the same category. However, it is always best to check with your provider by calling the number listed on the back of your insurance card.

  • Simply put, service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for a specific person to help with everyday activities. A therapy dog is not trained to perform any tasks but offers comfort and relief to multiple people in various situations.

  • Therapy dogs need to be calm yet moderately playful and highly socialized. A certain level of patience and friendliness is required for a dog to be successful in this role.

  • While there are no breed, size, or age limits for a dog to become certified as a therapy animal, it’s not something every dog is cut out to do. For instance, puppies under a year old are not eligible to become therapy dogs. Additionally, not every dog has the right temperament to fulfill this role.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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