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Therapy Dogs: A Special Breed of Love & Well-Being

By Carole Lynn Nowicki

A therapy dog is someone’s pet dog who has a friendly and outgoing personality and has been specially trained and certified to behave properly in public settings. Their objective is to spread love and joy, improving the well-being of others. Therapy dogs are tested and certified, usually through non-profit organizations run by volunteers.

Not all dogs are cut out to be therapy dogs. A therapy dog must have a naturally sweet, easy-going, and loving personality and be genuinely friendly towards people and other animals.

Dogs with the right personalities can become certified therapy dogs by undergoing advanced obedience training as a team with their human handlers (usually someone from the dog’s human family). The dogs are tested for certain obedience skills, their ability to be friendly with other dogs and people, their ability to endure loud noises, crowds, and being bumped, and other skills. The dog and human handler are tested as a team and, if they pass, they are certified together as a therapy dog team. Once certified, the therapy dog team is qualified to visit hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, homeless shelters, schools, public libraries, courthouses, universities, and other types of facilities to spread their joy, boost esteem, and alleviate stress. Some even make visits to patients and the elderly in their homes.

The Health Benefits from Interacting with Therapy Dogs

According to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, therapy animals have been recognized by medical science to provide benefits to people by helping them to heal from physical and psychological ailments, calm anxiety, reduce depression, and regain peace, thereby improving the quality of life. It is estimated that 18% of adults in the United States “fall under the grip of depression and anxiety.” Therapy dogs can offer companionship that can help people control anxiety, fight off emotional breakdowns, and improve their moods. Therapy dogs also provide an easy topic of conversation that helps people to form connections and build relationships with each other. “Studies have shown that looking into a dog’s eyes boosts the production of dopamine and other neurochemicals in our body. These neurochemicals are known as natural antidepressants and effective in promotion calmness. This not other makes one compassionate about others but also makes one less depressed.”

The National Institutes of Health (“NIH”) also published research on the benefits of interactions with dogs. Looking at biological, psychological, and social influences in human lives, the study found that:

…interacting with a dog can have stress reducing impacts in the biological realm such as decreased cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure, and increases in oxytocin. In the psychological realm, stress reduction can be a driver of immediate improvements in self-report measures of stress, mood, and anxiety and more delayed improvements in overall mental health and quality of life. The social realm is also likely to be directly and indirectly impacted by this stress reduction from both immediate and delayed psychophysiological changes as well as more long-term improvements in social support, social networks, social development, and overall social health.

Additionally, mental health professionals report that therapy dogs can benefit individuals experiencing depression, bipolar disorder, autism, ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and Alzheimer’s disease. Interactions with therapy dogs can also help alleviate physical pain. “Research suggests that patients who are recovering from difficult surgery or a bad accident who participate in animal-assisted therapy may feel less pain….Studies have shown that such interactions can increase the mood-boosting hormone oxytocin and decrease the stress hormone cortisol.”

Therapy Dogs Versus Other Support Dogs

Therapy dogs are not to be confused with an emotional support dog (or other animal), which is the personal companion of a person with a disability and provides emotional support to that specific person only (and in a form as that person defines emotional support) but might not be tested or specially trained. It is up to the emotional support dog’s person to ensure the dog is well-behaved in public settings.

They should also not be confused with service dogs, who are specially trained to perform duties for persons with disabilities, such as guide dogs for persons who are visually impaired. Service dogs receive extensive training.

Service dogs are expressly recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJ LAD) and enjoy protections regarding access to public places and reasonable accommodations related to the workplace and housing. Emotional support animals receive a certain level of protection and consideration of reasonable accommodations under the NJ LAD. Therapy dogs must have permission from the property owner to enter a premises.

My Wonderful Experience as a Therapy Dog Handler

I had the pleasure to be part of a certified therapy dog team with my dog, Beau. Beau was an older dog whom I rescued. He was featured on The Today Show in a series called “Bow to Wow” facilitated by Jill Rappaport. Beau was an older dog who had been found on the street in Queens, New York and was placed in the New York City kill shelter. The director of the shelter had implemented an expansive foster program, and Beau was very fortunate to be placed in a wonderful foster home, taken for a grooming session, and then featured on “Bow to Wow,” where I found him. (Yes, he was a TV star who was actually on The Today Show twice!)

Although Beau was an incredibly sweet and patient dog, the trauma of being lost and then housed in the large New York shelter left him with severe separation anxiety. Obedience training is one of the recommended treatments for separation anxiety, which began our journey to becoming a therapy dog team. Beau had the perfect temperament for a therapy dog, and I thought that having a “job” would also help him, which it did.

After becoming certified through The Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc. (a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization), Beau and I volunteered to make regular monthly visits to a local nursing home with a group of other therapy dogs. We also made one-time visits to other places, such as individual homes and to Montclair State University to give the students an enjoyable study break during exams.

Therapy dogs bring joy to everyone they touch. Our objective in visiting the nursing home was to brighten the days of the residents, but the impact went much farther. Everyone in the facility lit up when our therapy dog group entered the building: the staff members; the visiting family members; and the residents. We would hear cheers of, “The dogs are here!” and would be swarmed by people wanting to interact with the dogs. We would then tour the various wings of the facility, including the dementia wing in which some of the residents could no longer express themselves through words but could experience the friendship of a loving dog. Through these visits, I also received immense joy and Beau had a fun outing. We even dressed up our dogs in costumes for the Halloween visits.

How to Receive a Therapy Dog Visit

Requests for therapy dog visits can be made through the organizations that certify them, such as The Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs. Since the therapy dog teams are volunteers, their human handlers usually have full time jobs. So, it is best to request visits during nights and weekends. While this scheduling might not be strictly within an organization’s business hours, making special arrangements could be worth the effort. Therapy dog visits can have lasting benefits on the well-being of everyone who interacts with them.

Click here for a full list of therapy dog organizations that are recognized by the American Kennel Club.

This summary is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. This information should not be reused without permission.