There are therapy dogs that are blind, others are deaf, and many more are partially paralyzed and live their lives in wheelchairs. These disabled dogs are pulled out of high-kill shelters, saved from euthanasia lists at the last seconds, and rescued from dangerous situations they have no control over. Others are fortunate enough to overcome life’s trials with a loving family to support them. Regardless of their backgrounds, dogs with disabilities regularly face physical challenges and emotional distress. Many have also known heartbreak, neglect, and abuse. Despite all that, they have an uncanny ability to never give up. Their resiliency and determination are only two of the reasons why a disabled dog often makes an exceptional therapy animal.
What Disabled Therapy Dogs Do
Therapy dogs are found in schools, nursing homes, courtrooms, hospitals, and even airports. They accompany their handlers with one mission in mind: to make people feel better. There are therapy dogs of all different breeds, and they also have different abilities. And even though a dog has a disability, that doesn’t mean they have a disadvantage.
Research has found children feel more confident in a learning environment when there’s a dog to direct their attention toward. They see the dog as a non-judgmental peer that’s there to support them. At the same time, disabled therapy dogs are popular in schools because they open the door to conversations about disabilities to foster understanding and appreciation within classrooms.
In hospitals, dogs with disabilities visit people facing similar struggles as their own. Someone who recently had a limb amputated might make a better connection with a three-legged therapy dog than they would a dog with no disability. Whether they meet with the dog once or on a regular basis, an emotional bond with an animal can make a positive difference in recovery.
A therapy dog’s list of duties includes everything from being silently supportive to actively engaging with people. Spending time with a trained therapy dog can relieve mental and emotional distress, and research has proven simply petting a dog can lower blood pressure, improve heart health, and release feel-good hormones into the body. The fact that a dog has a disability doesn’t change that. Disabled therapy dogs are as capable as any other dog when it comes to helping people feel better.
Why Therapy Dogs Are So Necessary
Many people underestimate the importance of taking care of their mental health. When you’re stressed, anxious, or depressed, your entire well-being is affected. Mental health and physical health are closely linked, and when your mental state is unbalanced, you’ll often experience physical side effects. You feel miserable, and ultimately, your quality of life is diminished.
Therapy dogs—both able-bodied and disabled—offer opportunities to focus on bettering mental health without visiting a doctor or taking medication. They work by offering companionship, comfort, and by simply being there for people. Trained therapy dogs know how to adapt to an individual’s needs to provide them with a specific kind of comfort. They can be whatever they need to be, and they provide an invaluable service that is as necessary as it is powerful.
How Disabled Dogs Become Therapy Dogs
It doesn’t matter if a dog can run for miles or if they recently lost a limb, their physical ability isn’t as important as their personality. They need to be obedient, social, confident, and compassionate to excel as a therapy dog. That combination of qualities isn’t found in every dog, and rigorous training is needed to complete the picture.
There are several organizations that offer certifications for therapy dogs, and there are also non-profits that pull disabled dogs out of shelters with the intention of training them as therapy animals. Regardless of where they receive the certification or if they have a disability or not, all prospective therapy dogs must pass tests based on basic obedience, socialization, and willingness to engage with people. They need to be comfortable around loud or strange-looking medical equipment and calm in both large groups and in one-on-one sessions.
Dogs with disabilities are held to the same high standards as their able-bodied counterparts. They need to pass the same obedience tests and demonstrate the same confidence in social situations. They may need a wheelchair ramp to enter a building, but their physical needs don’t affect how well they do their jobs.
In many cases, dogs with disabilities have a natural talent for being the best therapy dogs. They’re often eager to connect with people, and they forge fast bonds with everyone they meet. Due to their disabilities, most of these dogs are calm, obedient, and willing to learn. Their past experiences and conquered challenges make them perfect candidates for therapy work.
Every day, there are disabled dogs visiting schools, hospitals, and other public places to meet with people. One of those dogs is a Cairn Terrier named Mango. She was found injured and afraid in a ditch on the side of the road. After being pulled from a high-kill animal shelter, veterinarians determined she suffered from a fractured back and pelvis, and she would never walk again. Many shelters would have euthanized her, but with help from a specially-made wheelchair, Mango is now mobile and living her best life. She’s a certified therapy dog that offers emotional support to veterans. Many of the people she meets with are learning to live with injuries similar to her own, and they’re inspired by her joyful personality.
McGrady is another disabled therapy dog that had a rough start to life. He showed up at an animal shelter in North Carolina as a stray in 2010. He stayed at that shelter for over a month, but no one realized he was completely deaf until after he was adopted. Many people assume deaf dogs are hard to live with, but McGrady’s family was determined to give him a good life. They learned how to train him using hand signals and soon discovered he loves being with people. He’s now a certified therapy dog and spends time at the Ronald McDonald House of Charlotte helping children feel good about themselves. Being deaf doesn’t impair his work, and children enjoy using hand signals to communicate with their furry friend.
It’s easy to see being paralyzed or deaf as a weakness, but physical challenges are the exact reasons why disabled dogs excel in therapy work. Mango, McGrady, and every other disabled therapy dog working in the country use their life experiences to connect with people. They show people who are struggling with physical disabilities and mental illnesses that life can get better. For many people, disabled dogs are inspiring and encouraging. They don’t let life’s challenges stop them from living, and they motivate others to follow their lead.