Therapy dogs have been used for years to help people cope with physical, mental and emotional disabilities, and are used in various important situations, such as hospitals, prisons or for personal support.
The familiar and distinctive tag “man’s best friend” is reserved solely for the furry canine species that lives alongside humankind. Ever since their domestication from wolves about 30,000 years ago, dogs have been bred and trained by humans to be inseparable companions, while also providing invaluable services. These range from utilizing their canine sense of smell for hunting, search-&-rescue and sniffers, to guarding and shepherding, and to simply enlivening our homes with love and companionship.
Time and again, overwhelming evidence has found that holding and stroking pet animals, or even just observing them, fills our brain with the “happiness hormone” called serotonin, relaxing us and reducing anxiety.
How many of us are guilty of spending hours scrolling through adorable animal posts on social media? I know I am!
That is directly attributed to the calming effect these creatures have on us.
The use of dogs (or, indeed, many animals) in assisting healing and growth has permeated ancient and medieval civilizations in the form of various animistic and shamanistic ideologies. More recently, it has taken on a more scientific form called animal-assisted therapy. This uses horses, dogs, cats, guinea pigs or other domesticated pets to calm patients, promote healing, and raise alarm in dire situations.
Research points to the effectiveness of domestic pets in reducing hypertension, lowering heart rates, reducing the chance of developing allergies, and many more therapeutic effects!
To understand this further, we’ll explore where therapy dogs leave their paw prints for the benefit of humanity.
Where have therapy dogs been used successfully?
One cool study found that dogs are actually capable of empathizing with human distress! This means that if a person is crying and unhappy, dogs are able to sense this distress and empathize with them. That’s why dogs often sit with, sniff, nuzzle or lick their upset owner because they can tell when they’re sad.
This awesome “sixth sense”, or exceptional tuning to human emotion, makes dogs great therapy animals.
Trained therapy dogs have been applied in various scenarios, including but not limited to the following:
Patient recovery: Hospitals sometimes employ trained assistant dogs to spend time with recovering patients, to reduce anxiety and stress and improve healing. Sometimes children’s wards have regular therapy canine visitors to stimulate a speedier recovery. This function also applies to mental and other medical institutions.
Trauma recovery & rehabilitation: Military institutions, like the army and navy, sometimes have therapy sessions for recruits to help them recover from traumatic experiences. A similar concept is employed in the rehabilitation of victims of abuse, prison inmates, and other such emotionally impacted individuals. Often, traumatized children only open up about their experiences after spending time with a therapy dog. In some situations, they even prefer to talk to the dogs, rather than humans, making these dogs furry professional counsellors in their own right!
Situational support: If it isn’t clear already, therapy dogs are great at de-stressing, and have been used in situations of stress to calm people down for many years. After the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the San Jose, CA airport was the first American airport to employ therapy dogs in waiting areas to soothe passengers’ nerves. Airport therapy dogs are used in many locations across the world to calm down individuals who experience pre-flight jitters—a common occurrence among passengers. Another great example includes dogs employed by educational institutions to reduce the anxiety of students and improve performance and concentration.
Personal Support Dogs:
- Emotional Support Dogs: ESDs are personal pets used to treat individuals requiring some emotional support. Depending on the situation, ESDs may or may not be trained, and in some countries, ESDs are not permitted access to public spaces that prohibit dogs. The function of these dogs is to simply provide emotional support and a sense of companionship with their mere presence. For instance, some children with learning/speech difficulties, or individuals with some social phobias, may gain a sense of comfort from the presence of the dog. This kind of therapy dog would qualify as an Emotional Support Dog, commonly called a service dog (Source).
- Psychiatric Assistance Dogs: In some countries, this term is used interchangeably with ESDs, but generally, PADs are fully-trained and certified dogs and are used for patients suffering from more advanced mental illnesses. Examples include bipolar disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, epilepsy and similar conditions. The primary function of such animals is not to provide emotional support (although it is one of their duties), but to ensure that their owners are able to carry out vital tasks independently. Some specialized tasks that these amazing dogs are specially trained to perform include – recognizing and interrupting anxiety-inducing thoughts, constant body contact, disrupting self-harming/other troublesome behaviors, nudging behavior to distract and bring owners back to reality, and many others.
When a dog is helping individuals with physical disabilities, they may simply be called assistance or service dogs, but they may also undergo extensive training, such as the training used for PADs.
The Best and Brightest
These unconventional counsellors are clearly capable of doing their job; there are endless examples, both anecdotal and scientific, of the effectiveness of therapy dogs in helping struggling humans. However, not all dogs are therapy-ready right off the bat, and some (like PADs) need a little special training to prepare them for the challenging tasks ahead.
Although any dog may become a suitable therapy dog after sufficient training, some breeds of dogs are more likely to be better therapists than others. This is because of certain inherent traits that they express. These traits include a calm and friendly demeanor, an unexcitable temperament, intelligence, the tendency to bond, the desire to work, and tidiness (which means less shedding and drooling!). Professional organizations that deal with therapy dog training specify a few breeds that make ideal therapists, usually including:
- Labrador Retrievers
- Golden Retrievers
- German Shepherds
Many more breeds are used as therapy animals, but as explained, these are simply some of the best!
In conclusion, these intelligent creatures provide an invaluable service to humans in need. We must not underestimate the contribution that animals have towards humanity, and should instead work towards reciprocating kindness to all creatures. Perhaps we can begin by bringing these fantastic animals out of miserable shelters, and employ them where they can be loving and loved!