Do Therapy Dogs Really Enjoy Their Job? You May Be Surprised

therapy dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Therapy dog welfare has become a topic of research, with scientists wondering if the dogs are really enjoying their “work”
  • Little difference was found in therapy dogs’ cortisol levels when measured at home or during a therapy session, so it appears therapy dogs are not stressed out by their work
  • Researchers also analyzed 26 canine behaviors, revealing stress behaviors were not more common than other friendlier behaviors
  • Pet Partners, the largest nonprofit group registering therapy dogs, has implemented a set of welfare guidelines intended to look out for therapy dogs in the field; they expect the dog’s handler to be his best advocate and ultimately make decisions based on the preference of the animal, not the client

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Therapy dogs provide invaluable benefits to people, coming into stressful environments like prisons, court proceedings and hospitals to offer support to those in need. They may simply sit and be petted or brushed, or they may act as sounding boards for people to share their feelings.

Therapy dogs may play fetch with cancer patients, offer a companion to a child testifying in court or act as a subject in a child’s drawing, helping to distract him from a difficult medical procedure.

In any case, therapy dogs are proven to bring emotional support and physical health benefits to the people lucky enough to encounter them, and their popularity is growing. The U.S. alone is home to more than 50,000 therapy dogs,1 which take part in a variety of animal-assisted interventions (AAI).

There’s little doubt that people love therapy dogs, but what about the dogs? Therapy dog welfare has become a topic of research, with scientists wondering if the dogs are really enjoying their “work.”

Study: Therapy Dogs Are Not Stressed Out by Their Work

Despite the popularity of therapy animals, little research has been done on whether dogs, who often find themselves purposefully incorporated into stressful environments, are negatively affected by their work. Researchers with American Humane, a Washington, D.C.-based animal welfare organization, sought to change this by measuring physiological and behavioral stress indicators in therapy dogs.2

The study involved 26 therapy dogs and their handlers who worked with more than 100 children recently diagnosed with cancer. The dog-handler teams worked with the children and their parents for four months, during which canine saliva was collected to measure levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

The dogs’ cortisol levels were also measured in their homes to act as a baseline, and each therapy session was videotaped, allowing researchers to observe the dogs’ behaviors.

Little difference was found in the dogs’ cortisol levels when measured at home or during an AAI session. Further, when researchers analyzed 26 canine behaviors — some stress signals, such as shaking, and others more friendly, such as play-bowing — stress behaviors were not more common than other, friendlier behaviors.

The most common behaviors the dogs did exhibit during the AAI sessions were oral behaviors, such as lip licking, as well as tail wagging. According to the study, published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science:3

“Results show that therapy dogs did not have significantly increased physiological stress responses, nor did they exhibit significantly more stress-related behaviors than affiliative-related behaviors, while participating in AAIs in pediatric oncology settings. There was a significant relationship between canine cortisol and behavior, thus strengthening the argument for the use of cortisol in canine well-being research.”

A 2013 study similarly found that, based on cortisol levels measured during AAI sessions and on non-working days, therapy dogs and those in training were not stressed by AAIs.4

Therapy Dogs May Enjoy Some Activities More Than Others

One interesting finding from the research was that the dogs did seem to have a preference for different activities. More friendly behaviors were noticed, for example, when the children talked to or played with the dog, as opposed to when the child brushed the dog or drew a picture of the animal.

Lead study author Amy McCullough, Ph.D., national director of research and therapy at American Humane, told National Geographic, "It's fair to say that some activities are more fun for the dog … This is good information for handlers — they can lean toward the activities that they think their dog would enjoy."5

It’s important to remember, too, that not all dogs will make great therapy animals. Before considering training your dog as such, be sure he’s an enthusiastic participant, not just one who tolerates it for a treat. "It needs to be a mutually beneficial interaction when they are visiting with the client, so it's important that the dog really loves their job,” McCullough added.6

Animal Welfare for Therapy Dogs

Pet Partners, the largest nonprofit group registering therapy dogs, has implemented a set of welfare guidelines intended to look out for therapy dogs in the field. They expect the dog’s handler to be his best advocate and ultimately make decisions based on the preference of the animal, not the client. They encourage handlers to provide for the dog’s physical needs (food, water and bathroom breaks) as well as to be in tune with his body language for emotional cues.

“The ability to successfully interpret what an animal is communicating is an uncompromising safety feature in responsible therapy animal visiting practice,” they note.7 Further, during any AAI session, Pet Partners recommends handlers:8

Allow the dog to relieve himself before the visit

Provide water and be sure the dog is not overheating

Instruct both children and adults how to touch and interact with the dog appropriately

Start with very short visits and gradually increase the lengths

Keep visits to a maximum of two hours per day

Leave visits if the dog is becoming stressed

Watch the dog’s body language cues and give stress breaks when needed, including giving the dog the opportunity for a potty break at least once an hour

Keep the dog at a safe distance from other animals

If a dog enjoys acting as a therapy animal, it may be readily apparent to his handler because he gets excited and wags his tail when it’s time for a session. But it’s up to the handler to ensure that the visits stay positive (it’s possible for therapy dogs to be teased and mistreated) and to remove the animal from the environment if he seems hesitant, anxious, fearful or stressed.

Provided proper handling and training take place, however, the (limited) studies to date suggest therapy dogs may enjoy their work just as much as their recipients do. And there’s no disputing the very real benefits to humans from these special interactions. During the featured study, for instance, disease-related worry and anxiety among the children who received visits with therapy dogs remained stable, whereas such feelings in the control group continued to rise.

Parents also reported significant improvements in school functioning among the children who received therapy dog visits.9 It’s yet another example of the power of the human-dog bond, and how our canine friends give back to those around them in seemingly limitless ways.