How Therapy Dogs Can Help You Live a Healthier Life

If you're regularly greeted by a warm, sloppy embrace, a heedless leap to a landing into your arms, or an unadulterated, adoring gaze, you might be a pet owner. Owners of pets from cats to canaries know the day-to-day benefits four-legged or feathered companions. Recent research has also shown that therapy animals, and dogs in particular, can bring smiles to our faces and help us lower stress, heal faster and feel better overall. And you don't need to be a pet owner to benefit from therapy dogs, either.

What is a Therapy Dog?
Therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort and companionship to patients in hospitals, people going through mental health counseling, elderly individuals living in retirement or assisted living communities and more. Unlike service dogs, they're not paired with a specific individual or covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Instead, they're trained to comfort all different types of people. They've even been used to help autistic children learn to socialize.

Therapy dogs can be of any size or breed but are generally at least a year old. (Puppies' temperaments are more likely to change over time.) A therapy dog is calm, sensitive to emotions, patient and gentle, and, perhaps most important, enjoys being petted and touched.

Therapy Dog Certification
There are a variety of organizations that certify therapy dogs, both on the regional and national levels, and credentialing varies by organization. For example, Therapy Dogs Inc. is a national organization with more than 12,000 dog/handler teams. Along with a variety of behavioral traits, the organization requires dogs to complete several supervised visits before allowing a dog and its handler to begin official visits.

At the New York-based Good Dog Foundation, dogs are pre-screened by a trainer, then enrolled with their handlers in therapy courses led by experts to learn obedience and practice responding to unfamiliar environments, such as schools or nursing homes, and unexpected behaviors, such as an uneven gait or clumsy touch. Finally, a veterinarian assesses each dog before it is certified. Therapy teams are recertified annually.

Other programs focus less on training than on registration, such as the American Kennel Club Therapy Dog Program, which bestows the Therapy Dog title to animals that have completed 50 visits, are registered by an AKC-recognized organization and are AKC-registered or listed themselves.

Benefits of Therapy Dogs
Sometimes called "animal-assisted therapy" or "animal-assisted activities," depending on how spontaneous the encounter is, the process of interacting with a therapy dog can be as simple as hugging, holding or petting the animal. For people with post-traumatic stress disorder, a dog can provide emotional support, evoke feelings of love and offer companionship and stress relief, as well as a reason to socialize with other humans.

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: Finally, many hospitals and nursing homes offer these programs. Some schools even provide dog therapy as part of reading programs. If you have a specialized need, ask if these services are available.

While it's easiest to get involved if you already have a pet you'd like to train as a therapy dog, some organizations also offer ways to be involved as a pet-free volunteer. Or, you can contact these organizations for help finding a dog therapy team to visit your facility or organization. Whether you're looking to spread smiles to others or bring a furry team to friends nearby, therapy dogs can smooth away stress and boost self-esteem in just a visit or two.
Federal Bureau of Investigation, "Helping Victims of Crime: Therapy Dog Program a First for the Bureau,", accessed on July 17, 2013.
Friedmann E., Son H. "The Human-Companion Animal Bond," The Veterinary Clinics of North America. 2009 March; 39(2):293-326.
Harvard Health Publications, "Therapy Dogs Offers Stress Relief at Work,", accessed on July 17, 2013.
Marcus DA, Bernstein CD, Constantin JM, Kunkel FA, Breuer P, Hanlon RB. "Animal-Assisted Therapy at an Outpatient Pain Management Clinic." Pain Medicine. 2012 Jan:13(1):45-57.
Nickolas Nahm, MD, Jill Lubin, MEd, and Vicken Y. Totten, MD, MS. "Therapy Dogs in the Emergency Department." Western Journal of Emergency Medicine. 2012 September; 13(4): 363-365.
The University of Arizona College of Nursing, "Animal-Assisted Therapy: Analysis of Patient Testimonials,", accessed on July 17, 2013.
The United States Department of Veterans Affairs, "Dogs and PTSD,", accessed on July 17, 2013.
University of Wisconsin-Stout, "Furry Therapists: The Advantages and Disadvantages of Implementing Animal Therapy in Schools,", accessed on July 17, 2013.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Can Therapy Dogs Help Kids with Autism,", accessed on July 17, 2013.