A therapy dog is a dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, with people with learning difficulties and stressful situations such as disaster areas.
Therapy dogs come in all sizes and breeds. The most important characteristic of a therapy dog is its temperament. A good therapy dog must be friendly, patient, confident, at ease in all situations, and gentle. Therapy dogs must enjoy human contact and be content to be petted and handled, sometimes clumsily.
A therapy dog's primary job is to allow unfamiliar people to make physical contact with it and to enjoy that contact. Children in particular enjoy hugging animals; adults usually enjoy simply petting the dog. The dog might need to be lifted onto, or climb onto, an invalid's lap or bed and sit or lie comfortably there. Many dogs contribute to the visiting experience by performing small tricks for their audiences or by playing carefully structured games.
Therapy dogs are not service or assistance dogs. Service dogs directly assist humans, and have a legal right to accompany their owners in most areas. In the United States, service dogs are legally protected at the federal level by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Therapy dogs do not provide direct assistance and are not mentioned in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Institutions may invite, limit, or prohibit access by therapy dogs. If allowed, many institutions have rigorous requirements for therapy dogs.
Many organizations provide testing and accreditation for therapy dogs. In the USA, some require that a dog pass the equivalent of the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen test, and then add further requirements specific to the environments in which the dogs will be working. In other places, the certification is by other organizations such as St John Ambulance, the Alpha Society, Inc., Tampa, Fl., Delta Society, Bellevue, Wa and TDI, Inc., Silver Spring, WA. Typical tests might ensure that a dog can handle sudden loud or strange noises, can walk on assorted unfamiliar surfaces comfortably, are not frightened by people with canes, wheelchairs, or unusual styles of walking or moving, get along well with children and with the elderly, and so on.
History of the Therapy Dog
During World War II, under combat operations against Japanese forces on the island of New Guinea, an American soldier found a young adult Yorkshire Terrier abandoned on the battlefield. Unable to care for the dog, Corporal William Wynne bought the female "Yorkie" and named her Smoky.
Smoky's small size enabled her to become a hero by helping engineers to build an airbase at Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, a crucial airfield for Allied aircraft. Early in the Luzon campaign, the Signal Corps needed to run a communication wire through a 70-foot long pipe that was eight inches in diameter. The pipe passed beneath the landing strip. Dirt had fallen through the corrugated pipe, filling as much as half of the pipe, giving Smoky only four inches of headway in some places.
Wynne tied a string (itself attached to the communication wire) to Smoky's collar and ran to the other end of the pipe and called Smoky. The little yorkie crawled her way along the 70-foot long pipe into the arms of Corporal Wynne.
Smoky’s work prevented the need to move 40 fighter aircraft while a construction detail dug up the taxiway. This would have placed them in jeopardy from enemy air bombardment. What would have been an extended construction job, was accomplished by this little dog in minutes.
Her service as a therapy dog began when Corporal Wynne was hospitalized for a jungle disease. As Wynne recovered, Wynne's Army pals brought Smoky to the hospital for a visit and to cheer the soldier up. Smoky immediately became a hit with the other wounded soldiers. Dr. Charles Mayo, of the famed Mayo Clinic, was the commanding officer who allowed Smoky to go on rounds and also permitted her to sleep with Wynne in his hospital bed for five nights. Smoky’s work as a therapy dog continued for 12 years, during and after World War II.
The establishment of a systematic approach to the use of therapy dogs is attributed to Elaine Smith, an American who worked as a registered nurse for a time in England. Smith noticed how well patients responded to visits by a certain chaplain and his canine companion, a Golden Retriever. Upon returning to the United States in 1976, Smith started a program for training dogs to visit institutions. Over the years other health care professionals have noticed the therapeutic effect of animal companionship, such as relieving stress, lowering blood pressure, and raising spirits, and the demand for therapy dogs continues to grow. In recent years, therapy dogs have been enlisted to help children overcome speech and emotional disorders. The concept has widened to include other species, such as therapy cats, therapy rabbits, therapy birds and so on.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a type of therapy that involves an animal with specific characteristics becoming a fundamental part of a person's treatment. Animal-assisted therapy is designed to improve the physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning of the patient, as well as provide educational and motivational effectiveness for participants. AAT can be provided on an individual or group basis. During AAT, therapists document records and evaluate the participant's progress.
Many kinds of animals are used in therapy, including dogs, cats, elephants, birds, dolphins, rabbits, lizards, and other small animals. Such animals are often referred to as comfort animals. AAT with horses is known specifically as equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), equine-assisted creative living (EACL), equine-assisted personal development (EAPD) or hippotherapy.
People who have pets benefit in various ways, for example, the comfort of physical contact with animals, reducing loneliness, and increased opportunities for meeting others, via the pets. In addition, caring for pets encourages nurturance, responsibility, and adherence to a daily schedule.
Improve fine motor skills.
Improve wheelchair skills.
Improve standing equilibrioception (balance)
May lower blood pressure, risk for stroke or heartattack, and decrease depression.
A 2007 meta-analysis found that animal-assisted therapy is associated with moderate effect sizes in improving outcomes in autism spectrum symptoms, medical difficulties, behavioral problems, and emotional well-being.
Increase verbal interactions between group members.
Increase attention skills (i.e., paying attention, staying on task).
Develop leisure/recreation skills.
Aid in long- or short-term memory.
Improve knowledge of concepts, such as size, color, etc.
Improve willingness to be involved in a group activity.
Improve interactions with others.
Improve interactions with staff.