By Leslie Ingraham
Published: 04/28/2022, edited: 09/09/2022
Therapy dogs are important members of society. They bring comfort and affection to people who are lonely, in crisis, or in teachable moments at school. Thriving in places like halfway houses, and physical and occupational therapy facilities, these compassionate pups are there for those who need their unconditional love and support most.
It’s widely accepted that therapy dogs can improve mood, relieve depression, lower anxiety, and comfort the grieving. They can also improve physical health. People with cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other diseases can benefit directly from contact with a therapy dog. There are four types of therapy dogs: therapeutic visitation dogs, facility therapy dogs, animal-assisted therapy dogs, and disaster relief dogs.
April 30th is National Therapy Animal Day and a great time to learn more about therapy dogs and what their days are like. Let’s take a look to see how each type of pooch improves people's lives.
Therapeutic visitation dogs go to any setting where there are people in need of a boost or a shot of calmness. They may visit a social worker’s office, child advocacy center, or private home – anywhere there are people who would benefit from having a warm, living dog to touch and talk to.
Therapeutic visitation dogs typically start the day with a routine that includes a potty break, breakfast, and a romp or walk to burn off some of the extra energy their body produced while they slept. Therapeutic visitation dogs need to be calm to do their jobs.
Following the morning routine, the dog-parent team heads out to the first visit of the day. This can be a foster home, nursing home, hospital, or another facility. Sometimes people in these situations are uncomfortable giving or accepting affection. These dogs are trained to sense a person's discomfort and patiently present themselves as calm and non-threatening. They may put a paw on the person's arm, lean against them, or simply wait for the person to reach out.
A visitation therapy dog going to a person's home can bring comfort and prevent loneliness by just sitting quietly next to them and allowing gentle pats and strokes. The pup is taught to "read" and accommodate peoples' needs by moving closer or putting their head on the person's lap. They feel comfortable making eye contact and forming connections.
After a mid-day walk followed by lunch for the human, and treats and water for the therapy pup, the team may make its way to a community social or support group where they make the rounds among the men and women gathered there. Therapy dogs are helpful for veterans and others suffering from PTSD, or anxious victims of domestic abuse, calming them and bringing them back to the here and now.
Some therapeutic visitation dogs have an active social media presence where they post pics of their activities and the topics that are important to them! Bailey the one-eyed Golden Retriever spends many days visiting facilities like hospice centers, hospital pediatric units, and nursing homes. There, this fur-tastic dog comforts and sometimes elicits rare emotional responses from the people they came to see. Visit Bailey on Twitter or Instagram to see where this big-hearted pup goes next.
More and more, hospitals and other facilities are taking advantage of therapy dogs and their parents. A facility can request individual visits from a therapy dog association or schedule regular visits. Other facilities may include schools, mental health facilities, daycare centers, and others.
A facility therapy dog has been trained to be calm around people while showing enthusiasm and friendliness to bring cheer to those who find themselves in a facility. They receive many months of training to be gentle with people of all ages and personalities. Visitors and staff get to enjoy the visit, too – facility therapy dogs are equal opportunity pups.
Children in a facility are especially needful and responsive to facility therapy dogs. Accompanied by delighted giggles and grins, these pooches won't miss a single child! Despite the noise and busyness, they will quietly walk here and there, unafraid of bandages, medical gear, or tubes the kids may be hauling around. If there are children confined to their beds, and it’s safe to do so, they may visit them in their rooms in hopes of bringing smiles to their faces.
A duo of pupster siblings from Arizona, Zoe and Mia love Twitter for sharing their adventures and pics of the places they visit as therapy dogs. The adorable Bichon Frise pair inspire peace, love, and inspiration during their visits and other activities. They’re known to be comical, too! Some of their regular stops include Sky Harbor Airport and HonorHealth, where people in pain or paralyzed by anxiety can absorb some of their gentle energy and have a better day.
Xander the Pug, another therapy pup, lost both his eyes, but that doesn't stop this hero from bringing comfort to child victims of domestic abuse through organizations like Hands and Words are Not for Hurting. Blind from having his eyes removed after an accident, this peppy Pug doesn’t slow down and loves being active or quiet with these youngsters. Xander meets them where they are during that moment and is an expert at making them feel better.
Disaster relief dogs typically serve people whose lives have been disrupted by a catastrophe like a house fire, earthquake, or flood. These dogs are not there to search and rescue, but to comfort people and try to bring a smile to their faces.
Disaster relief dogs typically love working with people and are not bothered by noise or signs of distress. After the usual morning routine, they may head out to visit the site of an apartment building fire or an auto accident, for example. There may be a lot of noise as people shout, children cry, and police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances come and go blasting their sirens.
The disaster relief therapy dog isn’t distracted by the noise or spooked by the distress around them. Heading to a group of people, the therapy dog is a mute but comforting presence, simply standing by or nudging and wagging their tail. People in the group may notice the pup and bend or kneel down to pet and murmur. When the chaos lessens and people seem calmer and less anxious, the team moves on to the next group or individual, and the next, until it’s time to go home.
Disaster relief dogs witness raw distress but are well-trained to not react to it except to comfort and calm. Sometimes their simple presence makes victims of disaster feel safe and hopeful. Nikie, a disaster relief therapy dog in the Greater New York area, visited Ground Zero in Manhattan shortly after 9/11 and made a stop at a center set up for people grieving the loss of their family or friends. There, a woman clutched Nikie, who patiently waited with a wagging tail until the woman was comforted enough to let go. Unable to talk with anyone before meeting Nikie, she confided her pain and concerns to a social worker who could help her.
Nikie and her human partner visited Ground Zero every day until the last girder was cut in May 2002, bringing needed relief to first responders and crews tasked with sifting through the debris. They slept on pews in a nearby church and ate with firemen and other workers. Talk about some dog dedication!
People undergoing mental, physical or occupational therapy can be anxious or uncomfortable during sessions. Sometimes they need a little help to complete a movement or task. This is where animal-assisted therapy dogs can be quite useful. Whether it’s offering an opportunity to be petted or tugging on the end of a rope to help a person gain strength, these dogs can be invaluable to both therapists and patients.
Animal-assisted therapy dogs visit physical and occupational centers and are trained to help with whatever they’re asked to do, whether it be a tug of war or retrieving an exercise ball dropped by a patient. The pup invariably receives plenty of affection from patients' loving pats and hugs. A dog calmly walking beside an amputee who’s learning to use a prosthetic leg can calm the person and motivate them to perform better. They can feel supported even if the pup doesn’t actually touch them as they walk.
Senior centers, rehab centers, and nursing homes typically engage their elderly visitors in physical activity to keep them strong. An animal-assisted therapy dog can help by nudging their arms as they move them up and down, and distracting them with nuzzles and licks so they can work through five more leg lifts with a smile.
Gabriel's Angels in Arizona regularly utilizes dogs to help with mental health therapy for children at risk, including children on the autism spectrum, traumatized and abused children, and others. One of their pups, Caymus, is a Goldendoodle who loves retrieving balls and spreading his calm love with his human handler Michelle to kids in need. This dog's fluffy coat and pawdorable face are appealing to children, and his easy-going demeanor makes him the pawr-fect pup to assist in therapy.
Therapy dogs are fast becoming a resource to turn to when people need comfort and motivation. If you'd like to learn more about therapy dog training and credentialing, visit the website of American Therapy Dogs for information.
Think your dog has what it takes to be a therapy dog? Book a training session with Wag! to begin your dog's therapy journey today.
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