A Complete Guide to Therapy Dogs

The bond between canine and man reaches into antiquity. Ancient people began the canine domestication process roughly 10,000 years ago and used canines to support hunting trips. Only recently, people began to understand how powerful the bond truly is; recent studies show that canines feel empathy for their human companions. The canine's ability to care for people contributes to a relatively new trend: canines working in the field of human therapy. Therapy dogs deliver comfort, reassurance and stress relief. They reduce blood pressure, rouse depressed people from their beds and offer a source of self-esteem.

Therapy dogs-not to be confused with service dogs-receive specialized training to carry out their tasks. Multiple types of therapy dogs exist, but generally, a trained therapy canine delivers therapeutic service in hospitals, schools and psychiatric facilities, to name a few. On the other hand, Service dogs provide direct assistance to a designated individual. They help the vision impaired "see," open doors for the disabled or retrieve dropped objects for someone in a wheelchair. Most notably, the Americans with Disabilities Act covers service dogs; the law affords service dogs specific rights, such as using public transportation and this is often where therapy dogs and service dogs differ. If you would like to learn more about therapy dogs, this article covers their history, training and other important topics.

What Is a Therapy Dog?

Therapy dogs are a special breed. They demonstrate a sound temperament and above-average obedience. The therapy canine provides a connection to the world for people experiencing withdrawal, physical or mental illness or disability. Trainers teach therapy dogs to allow unfamiliar people close contact in a therapeutic environment. Generally, a professional trainer escorts a therapy dog to a designated facility and allows the animal to spend time with patients.

History of Therapy Dogs

The early history of animal-assisted therapy dates back to the 18th century. William Tuke, a businessperson who believed in the moral treatment of psychiatric patients, opened the York Retreat in 1792. He allowed small animals to roam in the retreat's courtyard. His philosophy was that patients who cared for the animals would learn self-control and progress in their healing. History credits Boris Levinson with adding canine-assisted therapy to a psychiatric program for children. He noticed that some children responded well to his dog Jingles. In addition, Jingles responded differently to the varying personalities of each child. Today, research indicates that therapy dogs provide a number of psychological and physical benefits for multiple types of patients.

Classifications of Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs perform tasks in a range of environments. They provide comfort to children, adults and the elderly. Therapy Dogs International-an organization that tests and registers therapy dogs-generally classifies canines by their work environment. Canine therapy aids work in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, libraries, schools, hospitals and shelters, to name a few. In addition, many therapy dogs provide specialized support after natural disasters or the passing of a loved one.


Training takes place for both the handler and canine. Consequently, the training process offers a double whammy: incorporation of therapy through the training process. For example, some prison programs offer inmates the opportunity to train therapy dogs, which in turn delivers a source of meaning and value for the inmate. In general, therapy dog training and certification requires that the handler and animal meet basic, minimum requirements. The handler must possess sound moral character and control of the canine. Canine trainers teach therapy dogs basic obedience (sit, stay, come etc.), acceptance of strangers, distraction handling, tolerance of medical equipment and devices, confidence with people with disabilities and appropriate behavior with children.

Additional Information

While people use many animals to deliver therapeutic assistance, the dog is the most common. Consequently, multiple organizations offer training resources, guidance and publications that support the development of training programs or the traits common in therapeutic dogs. Many deliver assistance with getting a therapy dog certified or registered. People interested in turning their pets into therapy dogs can work with several organizations to develop the skills required for the job in themselves and their animals.