If you have ever seen a dog in a hospital room, you have had an encounter with a therapy dog. Therapy dogs provide comfort and affection to people in institutions such as hospices, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, etc.
Most of us have experienced the calming effects of spending time with dogs, but therapy dogs take it to another level. A 2014 study showed that patientsthat worked with therapy dogs after a joint arthroplasty reported lower pain levels and higher rates of satisfaction with the hospital. A study in 2007 showed that therapy dogs lowered blood pressure and anxiety levels in patients hospitalized for heart failure.
Fun Fact: Therapy dogs like their jobs! A study in Applied Animal Behavior Science determined that dogs working in cancer pediatric wards did not show any signs of increased stress levels.
Therapy dogs are not service animals, and are not trained to assist specific individuals with different tasks. They do, however, typically have to pass an evaluation and register with an organization before they begin working. They are pets whose owners work to provide them with basic obedience training that is then tested, along with their temperament. Therapy dogs must be well-behaved, obedient and adapted to the specific environment they work in. A dog working in a nursing home, for example, has to work well with the elderly and should not be disturbed by medical equipment such as wheelchairs.
Therapy dogs are recognized but not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Fair Housing Act. They do not have universal public access like service dogs. Instead, they have access only to specific institutions where they work. The handlers of therapy dogs generally do not need their pets for emotional support or other specific tasks, but rather train them to help multiple other people.
For more information, refer to:
Healing Companions, Service Dogs, Therapy Animals and Emotional Support Animals: What’s the Difference?
Alliance of Therapy Dogs, The Value of Therapy Dogs
American Bar Association, Assistance Animals – What You Need to Know
US Dept. of Justice, Service Animals Overview
US Dept. of Housing, Fair Housing Act