The Wonderful Life of Therapy Dogs

By Kristie Franks, M.S.

Anyone who has every formed a bond with a dog knows they have a special way of making us feel better when we are feeling down. Dogs have been domesticated for over 14,000 years, and over time, have become great at understanding the needs of their owners. Science knows that dogs detect many things through scent, since they have the ability to smell 10,000 times better than humans. They also know dogs are experts at reading a humans’ body language, but still science doesn’t have the answers to everything. They do not understand how it is that dogs actually make people feel better just by being with them and being petted.

Studies have shown time and time again, that a nice calm dog lowers most people’s heart rate, respiratory (breathing) rate, and lowers chemicals in the body that cause stress (cortisol) while increasing chemicals in our body that create happiness (serotonin). Though all the evidence is there for what the interaction with a therapy dog accomplishes, there is no explanation as to why it happens. Do we really need to know why? Or should we just accept that what it does and use it to help ourselves and others?

Therapy dogs have been used on a minimal scale for many years, but recent research has helped show their benefits and therefore the use of them is on the rise. They are currently used to visit shut ins at nursing homes, patients at hospitals, children in the R.E.A.D. program at participating schools, public libraries for children’s programs, special needs children and group homes as well as Universities during finals week. Therapy dogs (and occasionally other animals such as cats, miniature horses, gerbils and rabbits) are animals that have been through extensive obedience/behavior training and have been properly socialized with other animals and people in order to do their job. Can any dog be a therapy dog? The answer is, no, most definitely not! The dog (or other animal) must have the right personality for the job.

Therapy dogs are dogs who love people and are not easily discouraged around people who may not show lots of interest in them. They need to enjoy interaction on all levels. Some people may just want the dog to be near them, while others will want to hug and kiss them and everything in between. Some dogs will interact with others in order to please their owners. These dogs may do okay with occasional visitation to low energy venues, but do not hold up well for larger crowds or busy places with lots of noise. The dogs that truly have the personality for the job love to be the center of attention. The more people interacting, the happier they become. They will actually get depressed if left at home too often!

Therapy dogs live a relatively spoiled life! They are well groomed, always up to date on vaccines and parasite preventatives and get to be loved and doted on by many, many people including their owners. They are welcomed in establishments, based on prearranged contracts, which most dogs NEVER get to go in to! They love their job of helping others feel better when in not so happy situations.

Therapy dogs help many people throughout their active life by making them a little happier, if even for just a little while. Therapy dogs love it when people ask if they can pet them because that is what they want from life. Many people get therapy dogs confused with service dogs, though their jobs are completely the opposite. A service dog is trained to help and individual with a disability and therefore must focus on their owner and not interact with others. Please do not ask to pet service dogs and do not be offended when they tell you no! Always just watch for therapy dogs out and about in town and they will willingly let you love on them! They crave the attention and praise and they love helping others have a better day!