Does Your Pet Have the Superior Qualities Needed to Fill This Coveted Role?

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

therapy dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Thanks to the growing popularity of therapy dogs, many dog parents wonder if their pet has the right stuff to do that kind of work
  • The characteristics of a good canine therapy work candidate include obedience skills, safety around other animals and people, sociability, and a low stress level
  • Therapy animals are one type of assistance animal — other types are service animals and emotional support animals
  • Therapy animals help humans better manage an incredibly wide range of both physical and emotional challenges
  • Studies show therapy dogs aren’t stressed by the work they do

The more we learn about the ways in which our canine companions can help and support us (and sadly, the more we learn of people abusing the intended work of emotional support animals for their own selfish purposes), the greater the interest in assistance dogs. Interest is growing so rapidly, in fact, that Laura Hey, founder of the Health Heelers therapy dog service of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, provides free screenings for people curious about whether their dog has what it takes to be a volunteer therapy animal.

Pre-Screening for Temperament

As Hey explained to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, she looks for the following five things during her screenings:1

  1. Obedience skills — The pet must be able to follow basic commands such as sitting and lying down — skills that are typically mastered with an obedience class based on positive reinforcement behavior training techniques.
  2. Safety — The pet must be well-mannered around both people and other animals, meaning no jumping, pawing or other moves that might cause injury or fear.
  3. Social interest — The pet must be “exceedingly” social, but not overly excitable. Simple friendliness isn’t always enough. "The animal should want to meet person after person after person ... and want to initiate contact with others," explains Hey.
  4. Confidence and comfort — Therapy pets often have to handle the unexpected, including unfamiliar places, large groups of people and being handled in a way they're not used to. "They really have to be comfortable with so much that's not natural for them to be comfortable with," Hey says.
  5. Stress levels — Since travel may be necessary, the pet must be comfortable with it, along with environments full of unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells. Therapy pets must be able to maintain a low stress level in order to consistently perform their duties.

When a pet shows the right stuff during screening, Hey often recommends either a basic obedience class or her six-hour, four-week therapy team class, or both. Some pets do so well during the screening that she recommends they go right to the official evaluation, which is conducted in collaboration with the Pet Partners animal assistance organization.

Pets who pass the evaluation become registered therapy animals. Hey recommends starting with short therapy sessions, for example, a half-hour twice a month, and building from there. Two hours straight is the maximum session time allowed for therapy pets.

Different Types of Assistance Animals

There’s a great deal of confusion and mislabeling among the general public when it comes to animal helpers. The terms “assistance,” “service,” “emotional support” and “therapy” animals are often used interchangeably, but they are distinct categories, each with its own legal definition as outlined by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA):2

Assistance Animal — The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines an assistance animal as:

“Any animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability. Individuals with a disability may be entitled to keep an assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation in housing facilities that otherwise impose restrictions or prohibitions on animals.”

Service Animal — The Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 (ADA) defines a service animal as:

“Any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition.”

Miniature horses, however, have been added as an exception, provided they are housebroken, under the handler’s control, can be accommodated by the facility and will not compromise safety regulations.

Emotional Support Animal (ESA) — Emotional support animals, according to the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), can be any species of animal, who must fulfill a disability-related need and whose use is supported by a physician, psychiatrist or mental health professional. ESAs do not have to be trained to perform a particular task, and do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

That said, they may be permitted in housing facilities that would otherwise prohibit animals, and the ACAA allows some ESAs to travel on airlines at no extra cost, often with supportive documentation required.

Therapy Animal — According to the ACAA, therapy animals take part in animal-assisted interventions in which there’s a “goal directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. Animal-assisted therapy is provided in a variety of settings and may be group or individual in nature.”

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Therapy Animals Help With Both Physical and Emotional Challenges

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) programs help humans overcome, or at least cope with, health problems (both physical and emotional). Dr. Boris Levinson, a U.S. child psychologist, is credited with discovering AAT in the 1960s. Levinson brought his dog Jingles with him to visit a withdrawn child and found he was able to gain the boy’s trust, due largely to the presence of the dog.

“A pet is an island of sanity in what appears to be an insane world,” Levinson observed. “Friendship retains its traditional values and securities in one’s relationship with one’s pet. Whether a dog, cat, bird, fish, turtle, or what have you, one can rely upon the fact that one’s pet will always remain a faithful, intimate, non-competitive friend, regardless of the good or ill fortune life brings us.”3

AAT can take many forms. In some cases, patients care for an animal, as is often the case in equine therapy, or it can involve animals brought into health care settings to interact with patients individually or in groups. For instance, encouraging research has shown that equine therapy (interaction with horses) improves symptoms in Alzheimer’s patients.4

Other research has found adults recovering from joint replacement therapy who used AAT (canine therapy, in this case) used 50% less pain medication.5 It’s truly remarkable the number of health complaints that can benefit from animal assisted therapy. According to Pet Partners, “AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.”6 AAT programs may include any of the following goals:

Improve post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Improve standing balance

Increase exercise

Improve wheelchair skills

Increase attention skills

Improve fine motor skills

Increase verbal interactions

Aid in long- or short-term memory

Increase vocabulary

Increase self-esteem

Reduce anxiety

Reduce loneliness

Improve knowledge of concepts such as size, color, etc.

Develop leisure and recreation skills

Improve willingness to be involved in group activities

Research Shows Therapy Dogs Enjoy Their Jobs

The U.S. is home to more than 50,000 therapy dogs.7 There’s little doubt they are of tremendous benefit to us, but what about them? Thankfully, the health and happiness of dogs doing therapy work has become a topic of research. Are these dogs, who often find themselves purposefully incorporated into stressful environments, negatively affected by their jobs?

Researchers with American Humane, a Washington, D.C.-based animal welfare organization, measured physiological and behavioral stress indicators in therapy dogs and published their results in 2017 in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.8

The study involved 26 therapy dogs and their handlers who worked with more than 100 children recently diagnosed with cancer. The dog-handler teams assisted the kids and their parents for four months. During that period, the dogs’ salivary cortisol levels were measured at each session, as well as in the dogs’ homes as a baseline. Therapy sessions were videotaped, allowing the researchers to observe the dogs’ behavior.

Little difference was found in the dogs’ cortisol levels when measured at home or during their sessions with the families. Further, when the researchers analyzed 26 canine behaviors, they concluded stress behaviors were not more common than happy or playful behaviors. A 2013 study also found that, based on cortisol levels measured during therapy sessions and on nonworking days, certified therapy dogs and those in training were not stressed by their work.9