Therapy Dogs Benefit Everyone From Seniors to Prison Inmates

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

therapy dogs benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • Spending time with therapy dogs and other animals has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, particularly among seniors living in assisted-living facilities, while also reducing loneliness and improving quality of life and social interactions
  • Dogs with The Good Dog Foundation visit women in prison, helping to enhance the bonds between inmates and their children while taking part in a special curriculum that teaches parenting skills
  • Therapy dogs increased emotional well-being and quality of life when visiting patients undergoing cancer treatment; they may also benefit children with ADHD and people with psychiatric conditions
  • Many therapy dog organizations are volunteer-based; if your dog is friendly, outgoing and enjoys being around people, he may be ideal for becoming a therapy dog

For some seniors living at the Atria, a senior living facility in New York City, a visit from a Good Foundation dog, clad in an orange-and-blue bandana, is the highlight of their day. The dogs, which are specially trained to become therapy dogs, provide therapy sessions to seniors at the center, allowing them to pet them, snuggle them, love them and, often, be reminded of pets they once cared for.

"I'm very fond of dogs, and I really can't have one of my own because I couldn't really take care of it here," one resident told CBS News. "Whenever they come and visit … I enjoy seeing them."1

The Good Dog Foundation is unique in that its dog and human handler teams undergo training in order to become certified therapy dogs. Some other organizations only register dogs, without helping them reach a certain level of therapy training. Dogs at The Good Dog Foundation undergo six weeks of training with their handlers, learning how to handle working with people with dementia, women in prison, people with cancer and more.

Pet Therapy Is Beneficial for Seniors

Animal-assisted therapy helps reduce anxiety and stress while increasing well-being. It can also facilitate better communication,2 which is helpful among senior residents who may otherwise feel socially isolated. A psychologist in New York City, Penny B. Donnenfeld, Ph.D., took her dog to work with her to visit with people who come into her office. Her observations:

“I’ve seen those with memory loss interact and access memories from long ago. Having a pet helps the senior focus on something other than physical problems and negative preoccupations about loss or aging.”3

Spending time with therapy dogs and other animals has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, particularly among seniors living in assisted-living facilities, while also reducing loneliness and improving quality of life and social interactions. “Quality of life is a key issue for aging adults as they move through life transitions, and interacting with animals may be a way of mitigating some of the associated stressors,” researchers wrote in Frontiers in Psychology.4

Therapy Dogs Help Teach Parenting Skills to Women in Prison

Beyond their work with seniors, dogs with The Good Dog Foundation also visit women in prison, 70 percent of whom have a child. Animal-assisted therapy is being explored as a way to enhance the bonds between inmates and their children while taking part in a special curriculum that teaches parenting skills. According to The Good Dog Foundation, those who have taken part in the research program, named Parenting, Prison & Pups, may experience benefits such as:5

  • Decreases in depression and parental stress
  • Higher levels of self-esteem
  • Higher levels of parental knowledge
  • More confidence in parenting skills and better relationships with family members

Bruce Fagin, executive vice president of The Good Dog Foundation, explained some of the benefits he’s witnessed to CBS News. "When they go to jail, the severing of the mother-child bond is severe. I actually was at a graduation where 14 female prisoners at Westchester County Detention Center had completed the parenting program and were being reunited with their families and children and it was breathtaking.”6

In addition, he said, the therapy dogs have a way of providing whatever support is needed at the time. "When they were feeling angry, they were calmed. When they were feeling guilty, their edge was taken off," he said. "That's a common reaction we hear from a variety of different populations."

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Therapy Dogs Reduce Stress for Cancer, ADHD Patients

Animal-assisted therapy is also being explored to help lower stress among cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. The Good Dog Foundation partnered with Mount Sinai Beth Israel and found that their therapy dogs increased emotional well-being and quality of life when visiting patients during treatment.7

Simply visiting with a therapy dog in a hospital room also led to lower distress and significant decreases in worry, tiredness, fear, sadness and pain among youth with cancer.8

Therapy dogs have also been found to enhance patients’ openness and adherence to therapy when introduced at a psychiatric hospital.9 As for why interacting with dogs may offer such strong feelings of calm, it’s known to increase levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are associated with feelings of pleasure.

This may also explain why therapy dogs are useful for children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Research on therapy dogs for teens with substance abuse disorders, many of whom also struggled with ADHD, suggests dogs may also help to normalize brain chemistry.

Even when shelter dogs, which don’t have the therapeutic training that therapy dogs do, interacted with the struggling teens, the boys’ moods, attentiveness and serenity increased while sadness decreased. Researchers also noted that the boys were much calmer around the dogs, with outbursts and hyperactivity significantly diminished “like night and day.”10

Can Any Dog Become a Therapy Dog?

If your dog is friendly, outgoing and enjoys being around people, there’s a chance he could become a therapy dog who benefits people of all ages. The Good Dog Foundation, for instance, relies heavily on their human volunteers (and canine volunteers) to be able to offer their therapy dog services.

Therapy dog handlers often get just as much joy out of therapy sessions as the intended recipients, as it gives them a chance to give back and do good for others. If you’d like to get involved with The Good Dog Foundation or any other therapy dog organization, your dog must generally know basic obedience skills (sit, stay, down, leave it) and not show any aggression toward humans or other animals.

You can see The Good Dog Foundation’s whole list of requirements here, but if you’re thinking of volunteering your time and your dog’s, know that you’ll be embarking on a journey that will bring peace, calm and joy to every life it touches.