Ready, Set, Let’s Go – How You Doin’

One of the most rewarding activities you can undertake with your dog is certifying him as a therapy dog. Therapy dogs are not to be confused with service dogs, even though both can at times provide similar functions. Service dogs are trained to provide a service to one person – their owner. Therapy dogs are trained to provide a service to many people, particularly people other than their owners. Therapy dogs and their handlers visit schools, hospitals, group homes, daycares, rehab centers and the like. They provide a wide range of services, such as sitting quietly to allow children to read to them, having patients pet them or to help with physical exercises.

Therapy dogs come in many breeds, sizes, and shapes. The most significant requirement for therapy dogs is that they must have excellent, stable temperaments. They must be able to be relaxed in hectic environments. They must tolerate, ideally enjoy, being petted on every body part, including feet and tail. They must be comfortable around noise, such as medical equipment and loud children running around. They should be able to ignore other animals and remain calm in an emergency. They should be polite and ready to obey basic obedience commands; including sit, down, stay and come. Ideally, they will also know some tricks so they can perform them during visits.

There have been many studies on the benefits of therapy dogs. According to a study published in the American Journal of Critical Care, “animal-assisted therapy improves cardiopulmonary pressures, neurohormone levels, and anxiety in patients hospitalized with heart failure.” The Complementary Health Practice Review (2007) states that “the use of animals in the promotion or improvement of health is long-standing, yet this complementary healing modality is not widely integrated into mainstream health care. The beneficial effects of animal-assisted interventions (AAIs) have been documented both historically and in recent research. Current research reveals multiple indications with only a few contraindications for use of AAIs with patients and clients.” The Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology states that “the recognition of animals’ potential as communicative partners for children with autism was perhaps the foundation of the first use of dogs as therapeutic adjuncts over 50 years ago. The first argument that playful interaction with dogs can improve socio-communicative abilities of children with autism was made by Boris Levinson, a child psychiatrist at Yeshiva University Medical School, at a meeting of American Psychological Association in 1961. The argument was received with great skepticism, given that autism was considered to be a psychogenic disorder at the time.” In his book, Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy, Levinson argued for using ‘‘Seeing Heart dogs’’ to help children with autism to achieve their ‘’emotional, insightful health’’ (Levinson 1969:111–112). ‘‘When the child plays with the dog,’’ Levinson (1969:67–68) insightfully writes, ‘‘he establishes his own world, the boundaries of which he himself prescribes. The therapist, therefore, participates in a common adventure by entering into a corner of the child’s world where the child feels secure. This is where the therapist and the child find an equal footing; this is where the doors of communication are likely to open between child and therapist.’’ In the Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy on Agitated Behaviors and Social Interactions of Older Adults with Dementia by Nancy E. Richeson, PhD, CTRS, “the effects of a therapeutic recreation intervention using animal-assisted therapy (AAT) on the agitated behaviors and social interactions of older adults with dementia were examined using the Cohen-Mansfield Agitation Inventory and the Animal-Assisted Therapy Flow Sheet. In a pilot study, 15 nursing home residents with dementia participated in a daily AAT intervention for three weeks. Results showed statistically significant decreases in agitated behaviors and a statistically significant increase in social interaction pretest to post-test.” In an article in the journal Critical Care, “Johns Hopkins rehabilitation and ICU experts conclude that a therapy animal is “a great exemplar” of non-pharmacological interventions that can help ICU patients become active and engaged in their recovery as early as possible.”

Animal-assisted therapy is so beneficial that even when the use of real animals is impractical or prohibited, virtual pet therapy may be helpful. In The Effect of Videotapes of Animals on Cardiovascular Response to Stress, Deborah L. Wells demonstrated that just watching animals on a videotape produced physiological benefits of lowering heart rate and blood pressure. Participants were put into five groups: three groups watched videos of fish, birds, or monkeys; one group watched a soap opera; and one group got to stare at a blank screen. The participants’ heart rate and blood pressure were recorded at the start, after watching the TV, and after performing a cognitive stress test. All three groups had significantly lower heart rates and blood pressure after watching the assigned TV, blank or not. After the cognitive stressor event though, the fish, bird, and monkey group had a significantly lower heart rate and diastolic blood pressure than did the group watching the soap opera or the blank screen. “It is concluded that videotapes of certain animals can reduce cardiovascular responses to psychological stress and may help to buffer viewers from anxiety, at least in the short term.”

If you think Fido has what it takes to become a therapy dog, there are quite a few organizations that can help you make it happen, such as:

Photos Courtesy of The Author