What Is a Therapy Dog? Helping Patients Recover Physically and Emotionally

A Dog Sitting Next To A Senior Citizen In A Wheelchair

Therapy dogs provide a great service to patients in hospitals or those going through tough times by offering affection and encouragement. Learn more about these amazing pets and how your dog can become a therapy dog.

Any pet parent knows that loving an animal makes you feel good. For people who are sick, injured, or recovering from surgery, that warm, pet-loving feeling can actually translate into better health and a quicker recovery. The effects are so positive that a special class of animals, known as therapy dogs, is actually trained to offer affection to patients in hospitals, nursing homes, or rehabilitation centers. Their job is to help those who are at their weakest gain strength and the motivation to get well.

What a Therapy Dog Is

Therapy animals have been shown to help people gain physical, emotional, social, and cognitive ability. A patient’s stress level, heart rate, and blood pressure might all show improvement after a visit from a therapy dog who shares unconditional love. The effects seem to be due to both the immediate interaction with these affectionate animals as well as the reminder that there’s life outside the hospital or medical facility. A visit from a therapy dog can also stir happy memories that brighten patients’ outlooks on life and encourage them to continue treatments.    

For patients who have physical injuries or have had a stroke, holding and petting a therapy dog can also offer an opportunity to exercise muscles, letting them take the first steps towards building back their physical strength.

What a Therapy Dog Is Not

Therapy dogs are not service dogs. Service dogs are specifically trained to perform physical feats that can help a disabled human companion with everyday tasks. For instance, service dogs might be able to open and close doors or remind owners to take their medication. Guide dogs for the visually impaired and hearing dogs for the deaf or hearing impaired are examples of service dogs.

While therapy dogs offer emotional support and comfort, they’re also not considered Emotional Support Animals (ESAs), which are another type of service dog (and sometimes other pets) owned by individuals who suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or other mental health illnesses. These animals may be trained to warn an owner when they sense a panic attack coming on. They might also interrupt a PTSD sufferer’s flashback, or perform other duties to ease psychological distress.

How Dogs Become Therapy Dogs

Unlike service animals, therapy dogs are not the pet of the person who’s sick or injured.  Instead, they’re owned by other individuals (sometimes called handlers) who bring the dogs to hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers. These dogs have been trained in basic obedience and receive additional training on how to navigate and act in a hospital setting as well as ways to appropriately greet and interact with patients to make them feel at ease.

Before dogs can enter a hospital or work as therapy dogs, they may need to be certified. Being certified as a therapy dog is not like being recognized as the service dog for an individual. While service dogs are, by law, allowed wherever their owners need to go, therapy dogs cannot enter a business or other environment that doesn’t permit pets. For instance, a therapy dog cannot ride in the cabin of an airplane or live in a “no pets” apartment or house.

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Wisdom, Jennifer P., et al., “Another Breed of ‘Service’ Animals: STARS Study Findings about Pet Ownership and Recovery from Serious Mental Illness,” The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. July 2009 79(3): 430–436

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