Therapy dogs and other animals are pets that are intentionally socialized, trained, and certified to interact with people in a caring and compassionate way in order to help promote relaxation in a variety of stressful settings.1 Therapy animals spend time with the people they visit, offering their calm presence, and can be of value to people dealing with mental and physical health conditions.
What Do Therapy Dogs & Other Therapy Animals Do?
The American Kennel Club (AKC) defines therapy dogs or other animals as those who team up with a handler—usually, but not always, their owner— to reach out to people in need of extra support and companionship in order to enhance their quality of life.2
According to the Mayo Clinic, therapy animals help in one of two main ways:3
- In animal-assisted therapy, animals are present to help people experiencing specific mental health problems.
- They can participate in animal-assisted activities, which are more general and informal interactions to bring a sense of joy or companionship.
These dogs and other animals allow themselves to be rubbed, brushed, and cuddled. They are trained to stay with someone and listen attentively during the interaction, providing a quiet but powerful non-judgmental audience in a way that other humans often don’t.
In interacting with those experiencing conditions like mental health difficulties, chronic pain, or loneliness, therapy dogs help people relax and feel calm. These animals are trained to respond to love and affection with love and affection of their own, thus providing tremendous comfort, emotional support, and unconditional acceptance.4
A 2013 review of research studies found that people experience positive physiological changes when interacting with therapy animals.5 One notable change is a decrease in the stress response.
Spending time with an animal trained to provide support:
- Increases endorphins, a type of “feel good” hormone and neurotransmitter
- Decreases the stress hormones norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol
The emotional boost that someone gets when working with a therapy animal happens because the positive interaction directly impacts activity throughout the brain and body. As a result, people have reported decreased pain, fatigue, and symptoms of depression and anxiety.3
Who Could Benefit from a Therapy Dog?
Therapy dogs are used to help many different people facing a wide variety of challenges. They’ve been found to help people with disorders such as:4,6
- Major depression
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Eating disorders
- Substance use
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease
- Chronic pain
A review of six studies into the effects of therapy dogs on children with autism working with a therapist to simulate social behavior and language use revealed that dog assisted therapy brought noticeable benefits, including:7
- Enhanced social awareness
- Increased social interactions and positive behaviors
- Improved language use and nonverbal communication skills
- Better attention
- Mood improvements like playfulness, relaxation
- Decreased negative behaviors like aggression, withdrawal, and self-absorption
It is important to note the need of an individualized plan for dog-assisted therapy, as it was also noted that for some children with autism, undesirable behaviors like hand flapping increased in the presence of a dog.
It’s not just people with established diagnoses that benefit from therapy dogs. A 2016 study highlighted the positive effects therapy dogs had on college students prior to finals week.8 Students who were able to spend time with a therapy dog reported significantly reduced stress and anxiety. Because of this positive effect, students in schools benefit greatly from a chance to interact with therapy dogs. These dogs help people in other settings, too, as you’ll see below.
Who Might Benefit from Another Therapy Animal?
Not everyone enjoys the company of dogs. Some people are afraid of dogs. Others may be allergic to them. Therefore, other animals can and do become trained to be therapy animals.
Animals other than dogs commonly used in therapeutic settings include:9
- Small animals like rabbits or guinea pigs
- Horses (equine therapy, or equine-assisted therapy, is a specific type of psychotherapy)10
Like dogs, these animals can be caring and comforting. Even when they can’t be cuddled, such as birds, animals can provide benefits. Parrots, for example, are used to help veterans living with PTSD.11 Caring for animals and birds helps ease symptoms of PTSD and other disorders and fosters a sense of connection with another living thing.
Whatever the animal, people benefit from therapy animals. Dogs and other animals form strong bonds and powerful connections that foster healing.
Popular Choices For Online Therapy
BetterHelp – Best For Those “On A Budget”
Online-Therapy.com – Best For Multiple Sessions Per Week
According to 14 Best Therapy Services (updated on 1/16/2023), Choosing Therapy partners with leading mental health companies and is compensated for marketing by BetterHelp and Online-Therapy.
The Difference Between Therapy Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Service Dogs
Therapy animals aren’t the only types of animals that assist humans. People also use and benefit from service dogs and emotional support animals. All are considered to be assistance animals, but the nature of the help they give varies greatly.
The American Veterinary Medical Association distinguishes between the types of animal assistants: Therapy animals, service animals, and emotional support animals (ESAs).12
These animals are part of a process to promote relaxation, whether the setting is an individual counseling office, school or in a group care facility. Therapy animals must undergo a certification process before they can interact with people in a therapeutic role. Unlike service animals and ESAs, therapy animals aren’t allowed to accompany their owners into restaurants, stores, or other public places, and no legal accommodations (such as waived housing restrictions or airline privileges) are given to therapy animals.
Service animals are dogs (or, sometimes, miniature horses) that are highly trained to perform specific tasks for someone with any type of disability (physical, sensory, psychiatric, or intellectual).12 For example, service dogs help blind people navigate the world, assist in maintaining safety during seizures, or prevent or interrupt destructive or impulsive actions.
Because they are necessary to survival, service animals are allowed to go anywhere their owner goes and have legal protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).12
Emotional Support Animals
An ESA is any type of animal that provides emotional support to its owner. No training is needed for an animal to be considered an ESA.12 Any pet can be an emotional support animal to anyone. In fact, it’s quite likely that every pet owner will assert that their beloved creature provides a great deal of caring and support. Beyond this, though, an ESA can be certified with a simple letter written by a mental health professional, such as a licensed therapist who is in charge of your mental health care.13
Possession of such a letter does not always allow you to take your ESA with you in public places, as unlike service animals, they are not specifically trained for special tasks. Some legal protection is offered to ESAs, including the Air Carrier Access Act (which mandates that certain ESAs be allowed to accompany travelers on planes).13
The Fair Housing Act (which prohibits landlords from denying housing to someone with a designated Assistance animal) has been considered by some to extend protection to ESAs, but this Act makes it clear that an Assistance animal is not a pet and is useful for ESA letter-holders mainly when the emotional support is needed based on a disability.14
Therapy dogs and other animals are the only types of animal assistants that work with people other than their owners. They are part of a team (owner and animal) that intentionally seeks out people who need extra therapeutic support and offer comfort, connection, and healing.
Can I Train My Dog to Become a Therapy Dog?
If you have a dog (or other animal) and would like to use it to help others deal with life challenges, you can go through a process to train and certify it to work in this capacity. Your pet qualifies if it meets certain criteria before training.15
Your therapy animal must be:
- Well-trained to obey basic commands
- Well-socialized and accustomed to people
- Able to adjust smoothly to a variety of environments
- Calm even in situations that are noisy and involve a lot of movement
- Focused and attentive despite distractions
Basic obedience training programs can lay this foundation. Once your pet meets these criteria, the next step is to participate in a special certification program.
Therapy Dog Certification Requirements
Many places that allow therapy animals to visit and interact with patients, residents, and clients require proof of certification.
Example of certification programs include:
- The American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program
- Pet Partners
- Therapy Dogs International
- Other local organizations specific to your community
These programs are rigorous programs that prepare animals to provide genuine therapeutic assistance to people and to refrain from agitating or harming vulnerable people.
Once your pet has passed their certification program, a few more steps are needed before becoming fully eligible for therapeutic work:1,15
- A health check and approval from a veterinarian to prove that your pet is healthy, has the proper vaccinations and that heartworm and other treatments are current
- A screening to ensure that they are good with people, which may be as simple as letting an organization you’re interested in visiting with your dog observe its behavior
Once your dog or other pet has been officially certified, you can start taking it places to help people.
Where Can I Take My Therapy Dog?
Sometimes, therapy dogs are used in individual psychotherapy sessions; however, you won’t be allowed to do this with your dog unless you are a therapist and are using animal-assisted therapy with your own clients. If you’re not a therapist, don’t despair. There are many places that welcome volunteers with therapy dogs to visit on a regular basis to comfort clients and enhance their wellbeing.
Some common places people take their therapy animals:1
- Nursing homes
- Detention centers
- Disaster areas
Prior approval is needed before visiting places with a therapy animal. Some places advertise that they are looking for volunteers with therapy dogs. Alternately, you can visit a facility you’re interested in to inquire about visiting with your certified therapy dog. Many of these places welcome people and animals who genuinely care and want to help others improve their wellbeing.
Concerns and Criticisms of Therapy Dogs & Other Therapy Animals
As beneficial as therapy animals can be, not everyone is open to them. Hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities are naturally concerned about cleanliness. Especially with vulnerable populations such as the elderly or people who are ill, everything in the environment must be sanitary. Some people fear that animals can’t meet cleanliness standards.
Safety is a concern as well. Even extremely well-trained and certified animals can become aggressive when provoked. Sometimes, facilities may refuse to offer animal-assisted therapy because of potential safety issues.
Additionally, some people have had bad experiences with dogs or other animals and the presence of a therapeutic animal can increase stress and other symptoms. As long as each individual has an option to opt out of participation in animal visits, therapy dogs and their handlers are often welcomed.
Therapy dogs and other animals work for a very specific and intentional purpose: to ease the symptoms of mental health disorders, alleviate chronic pain, and create feelings of happiness and connectedness among people who are struggling. In so doing, they offer a tremendous humanitarian service.
For Further Reading
If you’re looking for more information regarding therapy dogs, check out the following organizations: