What Defines A Therapy Dog?

Therapy Dog
A therapy dog differs from a service dog because it is trained to provide affection and comfort to certain people in specific situations.  A service dog assists people with disabilities such as visual and hearing impairments, mental illnesses, and seizures. People with illnesses, the elderly, those suffering mental and cognitive disorders, learning disabilities or high-stress levels all benefit from interaction with a therapy dog.

Usually, these special animals work in medical environments such as hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, and therapy rooms. Contact and interaction with a dog stimulates the production of oxytocin and dopamine. Both are neurotransmitters and are primarily responsible for the feelings of being loved and happiness.

The interaction between a therapy dog and a human also lowers cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal glands as a response to stressful situations. Stress relief can be extremely therapeutic for both medical patients and individuals who are highly stressed.

But what exactly defines a therapy dog? There are three types of therapy dogs.

1. Visitation Therapeutic Dog

These dogs are the most common type of therapy dog and are often seen walking around hospitals and other medical facilities under the care of their owners.

Pet owners bring their therapy dog to visit people in these various facilities.  The dogs focus on patients who are receiving long term care and cannot leave the hospital or another type of rehabilitation center or clinic.

2. Assisted Therapy Dog

These dogs usually work in a rehabilitation environment and assist a physical or occupational therapist in patient recovery. They are a little more specialized than the Therapeutic Visitation Dog mentioned above.

Interaction with the dog assists primarily with fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Animal Assisted Therapy Dog can also provide benefits for a patient who is trying to regain mobility after an injury, illness or trauma.

3. Facility Therapy Dog

As the name suggests, a facility therapy dog works in a facility such as a nursing home. The dogs provide care for the elderly. The services rendered by these dogs are mostly aimed at residents with cognitive conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease or Senile Dementia and can wander off or get into trouble.

The dogs warn nurses or other staff that a nursing home resident may be in trouble. The dogs usually reside at the facility and work under a specific staff member who has received the relevant training.

Therapy Dog provides comfort
Therapy Dog provides comfort

Therapy Dog Training And Certification

Unlike a service dog there are no legal or other requirements for specialized training of a therapy dog, and therefore are also not required to have any form of certification. Sometimes a specific facility requires registration and certification by a therapy dog organization. Some of these organizations include the American Kennel Club, Alliance Of Therapy Dogs and Therapy Dogs Incorporated. Different types of organizations exist within each state. Ideally, it is recommended to find one located and recognized in the region where the dog will be providing services. To find out more about the requirements, please click here.

Although each organization has different requirements for registering a pet as a Visitation Therapy Dog, most depend on the number of successful visits achieved by the dog.  Often to register and/or certify a dog one must complete a form and pay a small fee for the dog.

Assisted or Facility Therapy Dogs, often require additional training for them to perform necessary tasks.  Training should be provided by a recognized organization or facility in order for the dog to receive certification. In both cases, the therapist or nursing home staff member responsible for the dog also undergoes training in conjunction with the dog.

Therapy Dog Gives Affection
A dog’s affection helps others.

Other Requirements

Of course, there are some characteristics and additional requirements that a therapy dog should fulfill to provide a service. You wouldn’t want a boisterous pup jumping up on patients and hurting them by mistake. A dog with a calm and gentle nature is ideal for working in therapeutic, rehabilitation and medical environments.

Essentially dogs need to follow basic commands from their owner effectively. Commands including sit, stay and heel and stop, a dog should respond to without hesitation.

A therapy dog performs best when it is well socialized and prepared for a wide range of different environments and situations that may arise within their work setting. Dogs that are twitchy or aggressive do not make good therapy animals.

Last but not least, the best therapy dogs love to give and receive affection in a calm and relaxed manner. These dogs aim to please as well as cheer people up.

About the Authors: Michael and Diana are the proud dog parents of five dogs and are authors of the site Little Doggies Rule, a website devoted to information and resources about small dogs.