Therapy animals are a great way to improve the mental health of those who interact with them. One common type of therapy animal is a dog. People who need support sometimes have therapy dogs in their homes as pets. Other times, therapy dogs can be seen visiting places like hospitals, schools, and nursing homes. Therapy dogs undergo training to be gentle, friendly, and patient with anyone who might interact with them, including people who might give them hugs or children who might tug on their fur. Studies have proven that therapy dogs are effective in helping individuals cope with certain symptoms and that a long-term relationship with a therapy dog can help someone overcome anxiety and depression.
Therapy Dogs vs Service Dogs vs Emotional Support Dogs
Therapy dogs and service dogs are sometimes confused for each other. However, they have different training and roles.
- Service dogs are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act website as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with disabilities ”. The service dog receives rigorous training to perform those specific, high-end tasks for their owner. Service dogs must be very focused. The ADA website also specifies that service animals are permitted to “accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go.”
- Emotional support dogs provide companionship to their owners, which can lead to therapeutic benefits. This kind of support animal does not require training, but it may be beneficial to ask a mental health professional if you qualify. Unlike service dogs, they can’t go anywhere that a service dog can go, but they do qualify for no-pet housing.
- Therapy dogs undergo obedience training as well as a testing and certification process to screen for a sweet demeanor and their ability to remain calm in stressful and distracting situations and in different environments. This might involve children, other dogs, and medical equipment such as wheelchairs and alarms. To officially become a therapy dog, the dog must pass a test called the Canine Good Citizens Test. Because a therapy dog is generally used to help others rather than assist an individual with a certain problem, they don’t fall under the same laws in terms of whether they are allowed in public places or housing. That being said, the rules are a little gray, and they may vary by circumstance.
Therapy Dogs and Improving Your Health
There are many benefits to interacting with a therapy dog for all age groups and those with a wide variety of conditions. Incorporating animals into therapy has become an important part of helping others cope with the struggles they are experiencing due to their mental or physical health symptoms.
The benefits of therapy dogs for mental health may include:
- Controlling daily anxiety and reducing depression. Those who live with a therapy dog can turn to them for companionship, and a dog can give them a reason to get up in the morning.
- Regulating emotions
- Improving mood
- Stabilizing intense emotions
- Lowering cortisol levels and enhancing oxytocin release. Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone, and oxytocin is a natural stress-reduction chemical in the body.
- Improving people’s relationships with others by helping them learn to trust.
Therapy dogs may benefit people diagnosed with autism and ADHD in particular, because the therapy dog can help enhance self-confidence and social skills through demonstrating kindness, compassion, and comfort. Many autistic people also struggle with sensory impairments, which can inhibit one’s functioning in day-to-day life. A therapy dog can help an individual through these experiences so they can cope. People with ADHD can benefit because they can learn how to better manage their responsibilities by helping manage the dog’s needs.
Therapy dogs can also particularly benefit people who are socially isolated and lonely, such as the elderly. Loneliness and social isolation can lead to health problems that interacting with a therapy dog can help mitigate. Social interaction can benefit an individual such as bringing them better moods, higher self esteem, an improved emotional control, and even an advanced mental capacity.
Some of the mental health benefits can lead to physical health benefits, but there are also separate health benefits that a therapy dog can provide, and these benefits can go as far as lessening pain symptoms and helping someone increase their mobility through small movements such as petting or walking the therapy dog. People with health conditions who tend to benefit from a therapy dog include those who experience diabetes, post-surgical recovery, cancer, stroke recovery, surgery recovery, and epilepsy.
Some of these physical health benefits could include:
- Lowering blood pressure. Walking a therapy dog can help decrease blood pressure and stress due to the mindful experience.
- Developing healthy habits. Much like how walking a dog can lower blood pressure, the physical exercise and other needs that dogs have can help someone establish a healthy routine and habits due to the dog’s needs.
- Enhancing other treatments. While a therapy dog shouldn’t be a treatment on its own, the comfort of a dog can help one through the difficulties and potential pain that can go along with recovery.
Can You Get Your Own Therapy Dog?
Because therapy dogs are basically considered pets with special training, if you already have a dog, you may already be on your way to having a therapy dog. To find a trainer, you will want to look up training approved by the American Kennel Club. The AKC website has a list of organizations where a dog must be certified to be eligible to receive the title of AKC Therapy Dog Title. These organizations include:
- Alliance of Therapy Dogs
- Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs
- Love on a Leash
- Pet Partners
- Therapy Dogs Incorporated
- Therapy Dogs International
If you don’t have a dog, but think that a pet could benefit you or others, and enjoy training animals, you will have to do a lot of research into what it means to own and take care of a dog. Certain kinds of dogs might make better therapy dogs than others, but in general, a dog should enjoy meeting and interacting with people. Therapy dogs can make a positive difference to your mental and physical health as well as in the lives and health of others.