We can all attest to the mood-lifting and stress relieving benefits of having a pet around.
We can’t help but smile and laugh when our dogs cuddle up next to us on the couch, or when our cats crawl into our lap and give us those playful, wet, kitten kisses!
But, did you know owning or being around a pet is scientifically proven to have physical and mental health benefits in people?
Therapy animals are a way for people in lonely, stressful, or traumatic situations to share in the benefits of interaction and pet ownership.
Pet therapy is a guided interaction between a person and a trained animal. When required, a handler is also involved. The purpose of pet therapy is to help someone cope or recover with a health problem or mental disorder. We’re going to breakdown three important types of dogs: emotional support dogs, therapy dogs, and certified service dogs.
1. Emotional Support Dogs
Emotional Support Animals provide support to their pet parents through companionship. They can help ease anxiety, depression, irrational fears, and more. Although emotional support animals are not certified service dogs and do not have the same rights, anyone with a need has the right to train their dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program. For more information about service dogs and how they differ from emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs, check out the ADA’s guide to Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals.
2. Therapy Dogs
A therapy dog is a dog who is trained to provide comfort and accompany patients during hospital visits or those living or temporarily residing in retirement homes, nursing homes, and hospices, to name a few places. They also help comfort those with learning difficulties or people experiencing stressful situations such as natural disasters. Typically, therapy dogs do not serve just one person, like emotional support or service dogs, and are generally accompanied by their trained handler.
Research shows that interactions with therapy dogs can increase oxytocin(chemicals responsible for bonding) and dopamine (chemicals responsible for happiness) levels while lowering levels of cortisol (the chemical responsible for stress) according to Psychology Today.
There are three common types of therapy dogs:
1. Therapeutic Visitation dogs
Therapy dogs that assist with therapeutic visitation are household pets whose owners take time out of their personal lives to visit hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation facilities. A visitation dog can brighten the day of someone stuck away from home, help lift their spirits, and motivate them to stay strong until they go home.
2. Assisted Therapy Dogs
These dogs assist physical and occupational therapists in meeting goals important to an individual’s recovery. These special pups can help individuals regain motion in limbs, motor control, and hand-eye coordination, to name a few. Animal-assisted therapy dogs typically work in rehabilitation facilities
3. Facility Therapy Dogs
Facility therapy dogs primarily work in nursing homes and are typically trained to help keep patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other mental illnesses from getting lost or confused. These dogs are typically handled by a trainer or handler.
There are so many uses for therapy dogs, and anyone can benefit from their help.
Do Certain dog breeds make better therapy pets than others?
Given their friendly nature and success in obedience training, golden retrievers and German shepherds are generally considered one of the best support animals you can have. But because most dogs are naturally supportive and loving, most breeds are smart enough to figure out when you’re feeling down or blue. However, there are certain breeds that definitely stand out when it comes to providing emotional support, according to TherapyPet.org.
Top 5 Therapy Dog Breeds according to Therapy Pet
1. Golden Retrievers
2. German Shepards
4. Cavalier King
3. Certified Service Dogs
According to The United States Americans with Disabilities Act, “A service animal refers to any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” This includes anything from pulling a wheelchair, reminding a person to take medication, or cheering someone up.
Animals used for therapy purposes can range from pets who act as emotional support animals, any animal certified by organizations like Therapy Dogs International or Pet Partners, and volunteer animals that work with and are trained by hospitals or other organizations.
According to the ADA, service animals are defined as, “working animals,” not pets. These are animals that have been specifically trained to perform tasks related to the disabled person’s specific disabilities.
A great example is dogs specifically trained to help alert their owners to with diabetes when their blood sugar drops, 20 to 30 minutes before today’s latest technology can. Redbarn is the official treat sponsor for a California-based non-profit, Dogs4Diabetics, who provide free diabetic service dogs trained for this specific task. Their service dogs are trained by their licensed handlers through an extensive process.
Different Type of Service Dogs
1. Guide Dogs
Guide dogs, also known as, “seeing-eye dogs,” assist the visually impaired. Guide dogs are one of the most commonly known types of service dogs.
2. Hearing Dogs
Hearing dogs alert those with hearing impairments to alerts such as alarms, crying babies, or potential danger. When a service dog hears the specific sound, they’ll touch their human and lead toward the noise.
3. Mobility Assistance Dogs
Mobility assistance dogs are dogs that can assist certain people returning to work or school after an illness or injury. Mobility assistance dogs can help in a wide range of activities. They are trained to bring people objects, open doors, and even help pull wheelchairs up ramps.
A few more tasks service dogs may help humans with include:
- Pressing “open/close” door buttons
- Pressing elevator buttons
- Assisting with undressing
- Opening drawers and cabinets
- Turning Lights Off and On
- Carrying items down stars
- Opening doors
You can read more about mobility dogs and how they help people every day on Paws4Ability.com.
By providing this type of help, guide, hearing, and mobility assistance dogs can help restore a sense of independence to those with illnesses or disabilities, reducing their dependence on others. People living with balance problems, cerebral palsy, arthritis, and spina bifida are just a few of the people who benefit from the help of service dogs.
4. Seizure Alert and Response Dogs
Seizure alert dogs will act in a certain manner when their owner is about to have a seizure. Seizure response dogs, on the other hand, are trained to respond when a person is experiencing a seizure. Seizure response dogs are typically trained to bark for help or press an emergency button when their owner is in need.
5. Autism Support Dogs
Autism support dogs can be a great help for kids struggling to connect with other children in the classroom. Many children and adults with autism spectrum condition (ASC) have a special bond with dogs. Children with autism tend to have fewer tantrums have higher confidence levels, less anxiety, and improved communication in the presence of a dog, according to research from Lincoln University.
Common Questions Around Support & Service Dogs
1. Are Emotional Support, Therapy Dogs Considered Service Animals?
Emotional support and therapy are all terms used to describe animals that provide comfort to someone just by being by their side. Because they haven’t officially been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals.
State or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support, therapy, and comfort animals into public places. Check with your State and local government agencies to learn more about those laws.
2. Who Generally Needs Therapy Dogs?
Dogs are the most common type of therapy animal and are used in a variety of different places to bring joy and comfort to those who need it most— including retirement and nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, veterans, and people with disorders or disabilities.
3. What is the Main Difference Between Emotional Support Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and Certified Service Animals?
You may find yourself asking, “What’s the difference between emotional support, therapy, and service animals?”
Although it’s easy to get the terms confused, therapy animals, emotional support animals, and service animals do help people in different ways.
But fret not! We’re here to break down exactly what each term means.
The Physical Benefits of Therapy and Emotional Support Pets
The list of both the physical and psychological benefits of Emotional Support Animals, also known as “comfort pets,” is endless.
Physical Benefits of Therapy Pets
- Lowers blood pressure
- Improves cardiovascular health
- Releases calming endorphins (oxytocin)
- Lowers overall physical pain
The Psychological Benefits of Therapy and Emotional Support Pets
- Lifts spirits and lessens depression
- Lowers feelings of isolation and alienation
- Encourages communication
- Provides comfort
- Increases socialization
- Lessens boredom
- Reduces anxiety
- Helps with speech and emotional disorders
- Creates motivation for physical training
- Reduces overall loneliness
Common Uses of Therapy Dogs
Anyone can use a therapy dog. Therapy dogs are used in many settings to help people like patients, veterans, and children suffering from illness and/or with a mental or physical disability.
General Pet Therapy
Pet therapy, or “animal-assisted therapy,” is becoming a common way for health professionals to improve a person’s social, emotional, and mental functioning with the support of animals.
Pet Therapy in Schools
Many colleges and universities bring therapy dogs to campus, often around midterms or finals, to help students relax and de-stress after long days. Students say that interacting with these animals can be mood-lifting, especially if they have family pets they don’t get to see often.
Pet Therapy in Hospitals
Many hospitals have formal programs or information on various programs that bring in animals for patients. For example, Cedars-Sinai has a program called POOCH, where volunteer dogs visit patients who have requested a pooch visit.
Pet Therapy in Disaster Relief
Some organizations work both locally and nationally to send therapy animals to areas affected by natural disasters. These therapeutic animals help people recover from physical ailments and emotional trauma.
Meet Liv, Bane, and Billie!
But don’t just take our word for it. Meet our Pet Partners, Liv (middle), pet parent to Grizzly Bane (left), and Bille Sage (right).
Liv is a dedicated dog mom of three. Although therapy dogs can be used for many different reasons, Liv used the benefits of therapy dogs to cope with moderate anxiety and ADHD. Her trained dogs help her feel comfortable in public and at home.
Billie Saige the golden retriever is one year old and is known for being a sweetheart. She’s quick to crawl on her mom’s lap and cover her with smooches whenever she senses something seems may be wrong.
Golden retrievers top the list for the best dog breeds to train as therapy animals, and Billie Saige is going currently finishing training. Liv and Saige plan on visiting their local primary children’s hospital every weekend where they will provide support to children battling illness.
Grizzly Bane the German Shepard is 3 years old and is an energetic pup that gets along with everyone.
Adding on to her happy family, Liv is also the dog mom to a four-month-old Bernese Mountain Dog, Bru. Bru loves to comfort her mom by being the best snuggle buddy ever.
“My favorite memory is just every single time I realize they love what they’re doing and they love helping me as much as I love the help that they’re giving me. “
– Liv Anderson, pet parent to Bane, Saige, and Bru. @grizzly.bane
How Can My Pet Become a Therapy Animal?
Your pet can become certified through organizations like Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs International. While Pet Partners’ team of therapy animals is 94 percent dogs, they do register eight other species! That includes cats, guinea pigs, llamas, pigs, and even rats!
While therapy training might sound like a fun and fulfilling activity for you and your pet, there are many qualifications that have to be met. Being well-behaved and well-trained is a must for your pet. Dogs going into training should also be friendly and enjoy being around others.
Dedicated Animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell notes that although “a therapy [animal] must be able to tolerate all manners of rudeness, as the pet parent, it’s our job to eliminate as much stress as you possibly can. As the human half of the team, you play several roles, and one of them is to be your [pet’s] biggest advocate.”
As their pet parent, you must be able to read your pet’s body language at all times to assess their mood so you are able to intervene in a timely manner.
Therapy work can be stressful for some animals, but if you believe your pet has the right temperament and would enjoy the work, look for a local or online class about volunteering for animal therapy.
You can also find more information on the American Disability Association and their Frequently Asked Questions page.