“What’s a therapy dog?!” I hear you cry. Simply put, they are dogs specially bred and trained to provide comfort, affection, support or all three to people who need it.
They can be found in hospitals retirement homes, hospices, schools and disaster areas all over the world, offering both practical help or just acting as a new friend to take people’s minds off of less happy situations.
Friendly and calm, they are petted, talked to and played with by young and old, always raising spirits and more often than not, a smile or two.
What Makes a Dog a Therapy Dog?
There are no hard and fast rules, other than a dog needs to be over 1 year old, well socialised, respond promptly to commands and have an even temperament. Older dogs make great therapy dogs as they are usually less boisterous by nature.
Any owner can apply to train their dog as a therapy dog. Specific therapy dog charities run fun, interactive courses that teach a range of canine behaviours including;
- How to respond to therapeutic environments and circumstances;
- Being approached, talked to and touched by new people
- Managing strange behaviour and distractions
- Taking treats gently
- Obedience commands
- Target training
The courses also identify if dogs are better suited to Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) involving more play and petting or Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), where they are incorporated into more formal treatment plans for physical or mental wellbeing.
Following training, it’s a matter of approaching charities and matching up the dog with individuals who would benefit from the therapy dog service.
Types of Therapy Dog Work
Therapy dogs play an important role in the classroom. They are most often utilised in helping children with autism or learning difficulties. They also help children with reading issues build their confidence. Having a furry friend to hold on to when nervous or fearful makes a huge difference in the enjoyment of school and the ability to interact with others.
Individuals awaiting surgery, suffering from depression or those who do not have family or friends visiting can benefit enormously from a therapy dog session. Therapy dogs in hospitals are often used on children’s wards, where they can be petted, played with or watched by patients and their families, providing light relief in trying times.
Not only do hospital based therapy dogs help with the emotional side of health issues, but they can also assist with physical therapy, reduce tension for visitors and provide much needed light relief for staff too!
Therapy dogs are often paired with Social Workers for hospice visits, where they help with socialisation and sometimes symptom relief for patients who can feel isolated or depressed.
Hospice therapy dogs and their handlers are specially trained so that they can do their job effectively within especially emotional and difficult environments, often working with very frail patients.
Nursing and care homes were the first to see the benefits of therapy dogs. A study showed how dogs (and cats!) have a positive impact on the mood of elderly residents and can increase interaction between people, reducing feelings of isolation, lower cholesterol levels and even help prevent disease.
In difficult circumstances, therapy dogs can offer an extremely valuable service, reducing shock symptoms of those that find themselves in the midst of terrible disasters.
Following such events as Hurricane Katrina, the Colorado Wildfires, the 9/11 Twin Towers attack and the London bombings in 2007, dogs helped victims, their families and relief workers through play, hugs and petting.
Therapy dogs and their handlers can bring comfort, consolation and calm to those affected by shocking incidents and provide much needed respite from fraught situations.
Various charities offer home visits from therapy dogs, particularly to less mobile individuals, those suffering from social anxiety and agoraphobia and the elderly.
The dog offers companionship and entertainment within a safe environment and encourages increased confidence and general improvement of mood. Basically they cheer people up from the comfort of their own sofa!
Therapy dogs and their owners provide a much needed service across a range of different environments and difficult circumstances. They work in a voluntary capacity and make a huge positive impact on people’s lives through giving individuals the chance to have a hug, play tug of war, or simply watching their silly antics.
What a dog to celebrate!
*Sarah Dyke, Every Man’s Best Friend: Impact of pet therapy and previous dog ownership on enhancing well-being in elderly residents, 2012
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