In a classroom at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, teenagers battling grief, fear, and shock sit around a Golden Retriever named Emma. They survived one of the worst school shootings in their country’s history.
At the Las Vegas Convention Center, families stroke a dog’s soft fur as they wait to hear whether or not their loved ones survived an attack that would ultimately kill 58 people and wound 442 others.
In a hospital bed, a child battling cancer smiles for the first time in weeks as a scruffy terrier lays its head on their lap.
At a nursing home, senior citizens suffering from dementia start talking about their childhood pets as they stare into the loving eyes of a visiting dog.
These are therapy dogs, and regardless of situation or circumstance, they bring comfort, support, joy, and so much more to the people they meet. Therapy dogs comfort survivors, they bring peace to fighters, and they help heal the hearts of people who feel like they can’t go on. They have no medical degrees, and they don’t even speak the same language, but dogs are capable of healing nonetheless.
Let’s look at everything you need to know about these comforting canines.
They’re Different Than Service Dogs
While service dogs lead the blind, provide mobility support, alert to medical emergencies, and perform countless other physical tasks for their handlers, a therapy dog has a much different set of responsibilities. Therapy dogs focus on the physiological and psychological well-being of everyone they work with. They visit schools, hospitals, nursing homes, airports, courtrooms, prisons, and almost anywhere else. Trained therapy dogs also respond to tragedies including shootings, accidents, and house fires. Their job is to support and comfort people who are feeling stressed, afraid, overwhelmed, or anxious.
What Can a Therapy Dog Do?
As the name suggests, a therapy dog’s role is to provide some kind of benefit, typically through emotional or psychological comfort. The image of a suit-wearing pup jotting down notes while a person lounges on a nearby sofa isn’t far off, but a therapy dog’s true potential is in their slightly unconventional therapeutic processes.
A therapy dog can work in almost any environment, and there’s no notepad needed. Soft fur, loving eyes, a wet nose, and a calming presence are their only tools of the trade. Their specific healing powers are credited to a dog’s natural ability to simply make people feel good.
To start, there are studies on how petting a dog releases brain chemicals that can alter a person’s emotional state. Research has also looked at how being around dogs can improve a person’s physical health. Every individual is different, and every situation calls for a different approach to healing. How a therapy dog works with a person is ultimately dependent on that person—there are countless possibilities.
In nursing homes, therapy dogs give residents something to look forward to and can alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness. In hospitals, dogs give patients and families a respite from their world of illness and treatments. In courtrooms, therapy dogs give confidence to testifying victims, and at schools, dogs open up channels for communication and socialization.
In general, here’s a list of some of the benefits therapy dogs bring to the world.
- Improved mental health
- Improved quality of life
- Lower blood pressure
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Reduced feelings of depression and anxiety
- More socialization and less loneliness
- Open lines of communication
- Relief from boredom
It’s All About Training
Like any other professional canine, therapy dogs undergo extensive training. They attend mandatory classes, go on trial visits, and must pass several tests to earn their official certifications. The biggest part of a therapy dog’s training is socialization. They need to be prepared for meeting every different kind of person in any environment. While wheel chairs, prosthetic limbs, loud voices, and different personalities might confuse or even scare an average dog, a therapy dog must handle all situations while remaining calm and composed. They must also behave well in all public settings and follow basic obedience commands.
Christy Shoup, co-director of training for Fidos for Freedom, said,
“Our dogs don’t need to be obedience champions, but they have to be used to working with distractions. They need to be fine with a lot going on, and they need to be in control.”
Therapy dogs in training are tested on skills like their ability to work with a handler, how they approach and interact with strangers, how they behave with other dogs, and how well they focus amidst distractions. Some therapy dog organizations require dogs to pass the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen behavior test, and most require either annual or bi-annual retesting to keep dogs on their toes—err, paws.
Qualities of a Good Therapy Dog
While size and breed don’t matter when it comes to being a therapy dog, there are specific characteristics all successful therapy dogs must have. Dogs need to be confident and friendly around all types of people and in all environments. When they’re introduced to something new or potentially intimidating, they need to stay calm and relaxed. This skill can be enhanced with training, but much of it has to do with a dog’s natural personality and behavior.
Therapy dogs spend most of their work hours being petted, hugged, and generally coddled by humans. The best therapy dogs thoroughly enjoy their work and appreciate all kinds of attention. That’s something that can’t be taught—it’s all about a dog’s innate disposition.
In addition to those natural personality traits, therapy dogs also need to be well trained, friendly with other animals, and focused amidst distractions.
There will always be a need for more certified therapy dogs in the world. If you think your dog has what it takes, start by researching therapy dog organizations in your local area.
Therapy Dogs Doing Real Work
Therapy dogs are not exactly a new concept, but continued exposure about their special breed of healing is making them more common. It’s not unusual to see a certified therapy dog sitting with travelers at an airport or listening to children learn to read in a school. They’re also frequently called after tragedies to comfort both the victims and first responders.
In the wake of the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart, therapy dogs from across the country were called in to comfort families, survivors, and the first responders who worked tirelessly to help those involved. Chanel and Rudy, two therapy dogs from Methodist Healthcare System in San Antonio, spent time with those affected by the tragedy.
Lee Stanphill, EMS relations manager, said,
“You’ll actually see them [the dogs] head straight for a person that’s displaying the most distress. It’s pretty amazing to watch.”
College campuses are another place where therapy dogs are becoming a common sight. Ohio University recently welcomed a newly trained therapy dog to campus. Penny, an Aussiedoodle, offers stress relief to hardworking students and encourages communication.
Penny’s handler, Rinda Scoggan, told The Post,
“Sometimes I’ll be walking in the hallway…and a student will just come up and hug her and say ‘I just so needed to hug a dog today, I miss mine so much.’ Just being able to sit and pet Penny because she is so friendly and so gentle, it gives people a sense of peace.”
There are even therapy dogs at the beach. A Golden Retriever named Ricochet is the country’s first therapy dog to host most of her therapy sessions on a surf board. She loves to surf, and she uses that talent to connect with children with disabilities, veterans with PTSD, and anyone else willing to hop on her board. She has positively impacted countless of lives throughout her years as a therapy dog. One mother wrote on Ricochet’s website,
“When West was first diagnosed with Autism we were faced with so many challenges. One of the hardest ones was that he could not be off the ground. His therapists tried and failed to put him on swings and devices, but he would scream. The lack of control was terrifying. So to see his feet off the ground and him letting Ricochet take control is inspiring. West has come so far.”
Whether they’re catching waves with friends or visiting patients at a hospital, every therapy dog has an important job to do—and they’re good at it. Dogs can’t cure diseases or bring back lost loved ones, but for a few moments, they offer reassurance, comfort, and peace. Therapy dogs are impacting lives for the better and generating major change in how society views and values mental health.