Imagine you are suffering from the aftermath of a stroke, confined to a rehabilitation setting, alone, and confused in a strange environment, when a comfort dog is brought into your room. A quiet, gentle dog is placed in your lap, you stroke his silky fur, he licks your hand, and curls up for a good long cuddle with you. You feel less alone, your mood elevates, and within minutes you feel better and less afraid. The use of comfort dogs as part of recovery and rehabilitative care is increasingly being recognized for its beneficial effects, and being implemented as part of therapy available to patients. A comfort dog, sometimes referred to as a therapy dog, is used to provide comfort and affection to people in therapeutic settings as part of a medical treatment program. A comfort/therapy dog is not the same as a service dog, however, comfort dogs must go through many of the same behavioral training and certifications as service dogs in order to be approved for use in a therapeutic setting. Comfort dogs have been shown to lower blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety, and increase levels of beneficial healing hormones such as endorphins and oxytocin.
A comfort or therapy dog interacts with people in a medical setting such as a hospital, rehabilitation center, school, or nursing home. The dog’s non-judgmental presence, affection, and attention bring comfort to patients who have experienced trauma and are experiencing stress, pain, and separation from loved ones. Comfort animals may be part of animal-assisted therapy which involves activities that provide therapy interacting with the dog, such as caring for and grooming the dog or playing with the dog. These activities provide therapeutic benefit to the patient by improving motor coordination and interaction. Animal-assisted activities involve less structured activities that promote communication and emotional healing, by allowing interaction with the dog such as petting and cuddling that help patients relax and feel better.
Comfort dogs must be friendly and non-aggressive, quiet, calm, gentle and obedient. All comfort dogs must be well-socialized. They should be comfortable with lots of different people and not get over excited or fearful around strangers or in a disturbing environment such as where patients may make sudden involuntary movements, or experience emotional, or verbal outbursts. Older dogs are usually more appropriate choices for therapy dogs, however, some puppies of the right temperament can be used. Small dogs may be more suitable for cuddling, while larger dogs may be more likely to be used for activities, such as fetching balls or providing other physical therapy.