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A 2012 study of animal-assisted therapy at a pain clinic found that patients who interacted with a therapy dog before a medical appointment reported less pain, fatigue and emotional issues. Friends and family members who accompanied people with chronic pain to the clinic reported feeling better, too.
Hospital patients, in general, report a greater sense of well-being and relaxation, along with reduced pain levels, with animal-assisted therapy. And a 2012 study found that more than 90% of emergency department patients and staff members found therapy dogs helpful. Therapy dog programs are growing in popularity in nursing home populations, too.
In patients with seizures, there have been anecdotal reports that therapy dogs—especially assigned service animals—sense an oncoming seizure, and begin behaving strangely to warn of the impending episode.
For children, benefits abound. Kids with emotional disorders or developmental delays learn to socialize more quickly in the presence of a pet, and improve their communication skills while developing responsibility. Children might also find it easier to discuss their feelings with an animal than adults or peers. Therapy dogs are a common fixture in schools, for example, after a traumatizing incident has occurred (such as the death of a classmate or a natural disaster).
Last year, the FBI commissioned its first therapy dog, Dolce, who helps calm and comfort crime victims and witnesses whom the bureau hopes can then provide testimony, as well as regain their sense of safety.
Still, a dog doesn't have to be a designated therapy dog to benefit your health—although animals taken to visit a facility should undergo proper training. Playing and socializing with pets, including dogs, lowers stress, anxiety and blood pressure and promotes optimism and well-being in people of all ages.
Finding a Therapy Dog Program
You can find a therapy dog program in your area with a simple search engine query, or you can contact your local SPCA or Human Society for recommendations.
You can also train your dog to be a therapy animal—or at least find out whether he or she may be candidate—by connecting with an organization in your area that can assess your pet for the required patience, friendliness and obedience, and then completing a training class. Many organizations are non-profits staffed by volunteers, so be patient when you send an inquiry.
Some existing organizations include: