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How therapy dogs make a difference in the lives of others

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Therapy dogs provide comfort, affection and love to children and adults living through challenging periods in their lives. Here’s what it takes to become one.
A boy in a hospital petting a therapy dog

Therapy dogs aren’t just experts at getting the humans around them to smile – they can make long-lasting connections and affect the mental and emotional wellbeing of the people they spend time with. Find out more about what a therapy dog does, what breeds are best suited for the job and how your dog can become one.

How do dogs become therapy dogs?

Therapy dogs can often be confused with their equally heroic counterparts, assistance dogs and service dogs – which require more rigorous and complex training to assist humans with physical or mental disabilities or other health conditions, or in detection, tracking or protection. The process for becoming a therapy dog can be much easier.

Potential therapy dogs must undergo assessments to ensure they have a calm, unexcitable temperament and aren’t easily startled or frightened by strange places or noisy children.

If you are considering applying to have your dog certified as a therapy animal, there are a number of specialist organisations that can help you to do so. You can find many of these organisations through an online search.

Similarly, if you or your institution would like to begin to receive visits from therapy animals, these organisations will be delighted to help.

What dog breeds make ideal therapy dogs?

Labradors – famous for their gentle nature – make excellent therapy dogs. Other dog breeds that excel at therapy include:

  • Golden Retrievers
  • Collies
  • German Shepherds
  • Beagles
  • Greyhounds
  • Pomeranians

However, any dog can become a therapy dog if they undergo the appropriate assessments and registration processes. Keep in mind that it’s not only dogs that can be certified to provide comfort to humans; cats can be therapy animals as well.

Where do therapy dogs work?

Many therapy dogs visit hospitals, schools and nursing homes to help students and patients who need extra help learning, calming down – or even just smiling.

No two days are ever the same for therapy dogs and their owners. But some of the daily guarantees from the job include the smiles and happiness from the humans the dog gets to visit, and of course, all of the hugs, pets and treats the dog gets in return!

Therapy dogs in schools

Therapy dogs often go to schools to help children with their reading skills. Sometimes, children can be nervous and stressed when asked to read aloud in class. This can make them associate reading with negative feelings – and be a place where therapy dogs and their owners can help.

Therapy dogs mingle with the children in class, getting pats and offering reassurance to help children relax. Children struggling with their reading skills will often take turns reading a story to the therapy dog. Because they are more relaxed and focused on the therapy dog, the kids do not feel as pressured, which can help build their confidence – and their reading skills.

But it’s not all about studying – plenty of time is given over for the dogs to play and interact with the children during study breaks.

Therapy dogs in nursing homes and hospitals

When people go to live nursing homes, many are no longer able to have pets. But sometimes therapy dogs are allowed to visit, and it’s apparent how much people love and miss being around animals as soon as a therapy dog walks into the room. Many nursing home residents adore a wagging tail, a pair of big brown eyes and a cold wet nose, especially if they are depressed, sick or withdrawn.

The same is true of patients admitted to hospital. Spending time with – and fussing over – a therapy dog can make a significant difference in a patient’s day, which in turn can have positive effects on how they feel and cope with treatment.

It’s not only the residents who look forward to therapy dog visits –staff love to see them, too!

What other jobs are available for therapy dogs?

Therapy dogs – and other animals – work in many different settings. Therapy dogs often visit humans in institutional care settings. Their ability to form a connection with those who have difficulty connecting in other ways is invaluable.

This propensity to connect is incredibly strong, and one reason why dogs are also used as companions for people with autism. Specially trained autism assistance dogs provide companionship and comfort to people who may struggle to communicate or make themselves understood to other humans.

Ready to get certified?

If you think your dog would make an ideal therapy dog, few activities are more rewarding – for both your dog and for you. Seeing the difference you and your pet can make in the lives of others – whether by improving their reading skills, cheering them up, providing comfort or simply serving as a cheerful distraction – is truly fulfilling.

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