Dogs are cuddly, calm, and easygoing. Having a ruff day? Simply looking at our dogs in person or online brings a smile to our faces and when we pay attention, we may notice we visibly relax. Spending time with a loving dog brings out a certain kind of peace that can ease our worries and remind us to live in the here and now. A dog’s unconditional love speaks directly to our hearts and the desire to share that special bond runs deep making a dog a great therapy animal. But there are a few things to consider first such as what makes a good therapy dog and could mine be one?
What Is a Therapy Dog?
There are currently over 50,000 actively working therapy dogs in the US. Hospitals, schools, retirement homes and libraries are some of the most popular places in need of therapy dogs.
A therapy dog is trained to provide comfort and affection. People facing a challenging or difficult situation find solace in their presence. They bring out our purest form of happiness through their empathetic nurturing disposition. Therapy dogs help to break down walls, calm us, and cushion our emotions.
Certification is required to ensure both dog and handler are well-trained to work in any type of setting. They voluntarily donate their time to supporting the physical and mental wellness of others.
Could My Dog Be a Therapy Dog?
A therapy dog must be in adulthood or at least 1 year of age. Any mix or breed can be trained to be a therapy dog. They come in all shapes and sizes. Smaller dogs are the perfect snugglers. They don’t need too much extra room except the room in your heart. Larger dogs have the advantage of height and can stand easily next to a hospital bed or a wheelchair confidently.
The most important requirements are friendliness and manners. Is your dog the professional good boy? Some dogs are well behaved at home, but have difficulty interacting with strangers. A therapy dog is well socialized and comfortable in any type of situation. They possess a level of rock-solid soundness. There will be times when a therapy dog will be poked and squeezed. They will undergo a bit of discomfort as the center of attention! Sometimes those gigantic hugs come at a big price. Unsettling voices or loud noises must roll right off their back. A dog’s easy-going temperament is key to the success of their duties.
The Right Dog For The Job
I spoke with a local teacher, Brittany Pumphrey about her classroom experience with her therapy dog. She is a certified handler and pet parent to Bill, a 7 and a half-year-old silver lab. “Bill is such a gregarious dog. He loves people, being around people and making people happy. He is also the kindest dog and great at picking up emotions!” When asked about Bill’s connection to a specific type of person, she adds, “Bill really does a great job connecting to all types of people. I have even had a few students who don’t like dogs, who have become huge fans of Bill, because he is so gentle and comforting.”
This is understandable as studies show therapy dogs have positive effects on student social life and mood. Therapy dogs in an educational setting seem endlessly beneficial. They are joining classrooms across the nation to calm fears, relieve anxiety and teach empathy skills. Interacting with a therapy dog can decrease stress which enables kids to feel more at ease. I asked if the feedback she has received has been supportive, “I have received so much positive feedback from parents, students and staff whenever Bill visits. Students who I don’t have in class will sometimes walk across the building between their classes to see Bill, because they heard he was in that day. Bill is great at making anyone’s day better, even if they didn’t know they needed it!”
Making A Difference In An Unconventional Way
Therapy dogs are like good medicine! Studies show they may be beneficial for your physical and emotional health. Increasing research reveals many positive impacts. Animal-assisted therapy can significantly reduce pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue in people with a range of health problems:
- Children having dental procedures
- People receiving cancer treatment
- People in long-term care facilities
- People with cardiovascular diseases
- People with dementia
- Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder
- People with anxiety
We know that stress, depression and anger all have negative effects on the body. Research shows therapy dogs help decrease blood pressure, increase dopamine and serotonin levels to improve our motivation. Therapy handler Brittany adds, “Bill has almost a sixth sense. He definitely knows when someone isn’t feeling their best and just kind of sits by them and pays extra attention.” This increase in morale doesn’t stop here. It becomes a domino effect extending out to family and friends of loved ones touched by a therapy dog.
Providing Unconditional Love Is a Team Effort
Screening and testing for therapy dogs is a rigorous high standard process. Bill, our classroom canine, went through 6 total classes as well as practicing skill-specific tasks required in the evaluation. The handler and dog are a therapy team! The certification has just as much to do with the handler as the dog. Brittany’s journey continued right beside Bill as she participated in courses focusing on environmental situations and how to be Bill’s best advocate.
Brittany steps in to protect Bill in overly stressful situations. A dog’s stress level can be influenced by the quality of the dog-handler relationship. Brittany keeps a close eye on Bill, “Bill has a bed in my classroom and he is free to go rest whenever he needs a break. Usually he will take a quick nap during my planning period or lunch, but it is always available to him if he feels he needs a break or a rest!”
Following the individual evaluations, both completed team evaluations. Together they are required to demonstrate proficiency in a long list of skills and behaviors. Once complete, they were given a rating. This rating determines which type of environments the team were certified to work in. Bill and Brittany’s training encompasses complex environments such as schools and hospitals as well as low-key locations such as libraries and small groups. They have endorsements for several specialty programs, making them a well-rounded team!
Do Therapy Dogs Enjoy Their Job?
Dogs absolutely love mental stimulation, training and a job! They love being right in the center of all the action! Too much nothing or too much of being spoiled can wreak havoc. Therapy dogs fall into that perfect mix of challenge and reward! A study tested this theory and found that dogs were more excited, wagged their tails more and moved more quickly when they were rewarded for performing specific tasks rather than simply receiving a reward for no reason. How does our classroom canine, Bill, feel about all this? “When he sees we have his therapy vest out, he definitely becomes visibly excited and knows where he is going!” This could indicate the mere presence of human companionship is rewarding!
Volunteerism Lies At The Heart Of Every Therapy Team
It takes a special combination of dog, handler and commitment to bring about big changes. At the core of each therapy team there must be a handler who possesses a driving force toward serving others. In Brittany’s case, she was shaped by her family who also made a difference. “When my mother-in-law was working as a hospice nurse, she would take their one dog with her to her job and he pretty much had the run of the place. She would always talk about how impactful the visits, even brief ones were to the residents and I always loved hearing her talk about it.” A labor of love uniting connection to the ones who need it most!
Therapy Dogs Expand The Hearts Of The Community.
Society is beginning to recognize their incredible contribution and increased role in the future.
We look into the eyes of a dog and recognize their reciprocating gleam. Their ability to focus on our eyes shows a deep understanding of connection on a profound level. Compassionately they follow our every move knowing each look, movement and sound has an important purpose. Brittany and Bill are excited about their journey saying, “We’re looking forward to many more years of therapy work together!” Bill grew into his job masterfully, each day continuing to grant smiles ear-to-ear!
Beetz, Andrea, et al. “Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions.” Frontiers in Psychology, Frontiers Research Foundation, 9 July 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3408111/.
Staff, Writer. “Therapy Dogs Bring Joy and Healing.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 15 Sept. 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/pet-therapy/art-20046342.
Pumphrey, Brittany. Interview. Conducted by Sarah Ihrig 18 Nov. 2021.