Introduction to Therapy Dogs and Other Therapy Animals

 Therapy Animals

 How Therapy Animals Heal

 Where Therapy Animals Serve


 Retirement Homes, Assisted Living Homes, Nursing Homes and Hospices

 Mental and Physical Therapy

 Stress Release Clinics

 Animal-Assisted Reading Programs

 Crisis Response

 Therapy Animal Organizations

 Requirements and Rules




 How to Get Involved

   What's the difference?  Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs and Therapy Dogs

About this Website

Outside the Pediatrics ER at Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital

I created this website to help those interested in sharing their animal's love and healing power with those in need. This page introduces therapy animals and the work they do.

Pet Partners provides an overview of the Pet Partners Therapy Animal Program, and how to become a registered team.

Evaluation Tips explains what you need to do to pass the Pet Partners Team Evaluation, and gives tips for each exercise.

Service and Emotional Support Dogs eliminates the confusion over the terms service, emotional support, and therapy dog.

I'd be happy to help you with any questions.

Peter Christensen

What Is a Therapy Animal?

Not all therapy animals are dogs

This website was named TherapyDogInfo only because most therapy animals are dogs. Therapy animals can also be cats, birds, guinea pigs, pot-bellied pigs, rabbits, horses, llamas and alpacas. And rats!

Whatever the breed or species, a therapy animal's most important characteristic is its temperament. They are friendly, gentle and patient, and at ease with strangers.

Therapy animals must enjoy human contact and excessive petting, and be comfortable around healthcare equipment. Species that are normally trained, such as dogs and horses, must have mastered basic obedience skills.

Therapy animals are best known for bringing comfort, affection and happiness to people in confined living situations, whether they are in a hospital for a short stay or living in an assisted living home.

But therapy animals also serve in many other capacities, including helping people with learning difficulties, assisting medical professionals in providing mental and physical therapy, and bringing comfort to people recovering from crisis.

In all their activities, therapy animals are unconditionally accepting of those they visit.

The Healing Effects of Therapy Animals

Photo: TN Safety Spotters

Spending time with animals produces marked improvements in humans, affecting the physical, mental, emotional and social aspects of their well-being.

Stress leads to an overproduction of stress hormones, and in-turn increased blood pressure, heart rate, and chance of heart attack and stroke. As you will see in the list, below, a visit with a therapy animal does much to reverse the effects of stress.

Visiting with an animal can reduce anxiety without the need for medication, and elicit positive reminiscing in clients with dementia. Therapy animal teams frequently witness measurable improvements, for example when visiting with chemotherapy patients in order to lower their blood pressure to a level acceptable for treatment.

Here are just some of the healing effects of therapy animal visits:

 Mental Benefits

 Decrease in stress and anxiety, including that from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

 Decrease in depression, loneliness and feelings of isolation and aggressive behaviors

 Increase in socialization with an outward focus, including opportunities for laughter and a sense of happiness and well-being

 Increase in mental stimulation, attention skills, and verbal interactions

 Increase in spirit, self-esteem, and feeling of acceptance, enabling a patient to further participate in mental and physical therapy; to be more involved in group activities; and to accept social and emotional support

 Physical Benefits

 Decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and the stress hormone cortisol

 Increase in hormones associated with health and feeling of well-being, including beta-endorphin, beta-phenylethylamine, dopamine, oxytocin, prolactin and serotonin

 Increase in level of fitness by providing stimulus for exercise, with improvement in activities in which they are limited

 Improvement in motor skills including standing balance, wheelchair and other physical skills

In addition, the benefits listed above may result in a decrease in a person's need for medications.

Where and How They Serve

Photo: Columbia River Pet Partners

Most people think of hospitals and retirement homes they think of therapy animals. In fact, therapy animals serve in a tremendous variety of venues, and the number of ways in which they help people is equally great and varied.

Working with very ill children, Alzheimer's patients, or in a hospice sounds like a wonderful way to serve. But if dealing with such circumstances is difficult for you, know that there will be others that will do well with them.

Find a venue for your therapy animal work that you and your animal will be comfortable with and enjoy, and you'll be able to give the best you have to offer.

Also see:

 Can a therapy dog visit my relative?

 Can I take my therapy dog to work with me?


Photo: Therapy Animals of Redding

Hospitals offer a special opportunity to help people through difficult times. Patients appreciate a warm and loving distraction from their pain and worries, as well as the depression and boredom that can result from a long hospital stay. And you will find that family members are every bit as appreciative. Not only because you are comforting their loved ones, but because they are also going through difficult times and appreciate a break from it themselves.

Waiting rooms provide another opportunity to serve. Family and friends spend hour upon hour waiting during a patient's surgery, all the while worrying about the outcome.

Hospitals require strict adherence to sanitation guidelines, including hand sanitizing before and after each visit. When animals are placed on a bed, they are placed on a clean sheet or towel used just for that visit. You must also be very careful not to disturb a patient's injury, or medical equipment such as IV tubing.

This video presents an overview of our work at Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital.

Retirement Homes, Assisted Living Homes, Nursing Homes and Hospices

Photo: Pet Partners

The distinction between retirement homes, assisted living homes, nursing homes and hospices is important in that each represents a different group of clients, although the lines are not always clearly drawn.

In each of these types of facilities you may visit clients in their rooms and/or visit with a group of clients in a family room. Often those living in such facilities have little outside contact, and your visit may be the highlight of their week.

Retirement homes generally support independent living, and have the air of a senior citizen center. Assisted living homes provide services such as meals and housekeeping, and assist residents in daily living. And many have a special unit to provide for those with dementia.

Nursing homes provide all the amenities of assisted living homes, with the addition of skilled nursing care. Hospices provide specialized healthcare that focuses on relieving suffering for patients who are nearing the end their lives.

Mental and Physical Therapy

Photo: ITA

While there are many different ways in which therapy animal work is conducted, a significant distinction is made for those activities in which a health professional is directly involved.

The term animal-assisted activities (AAA) is used to describe activities which involve only the handler, their animal, and the client. Examples include visits to patients in hospitals and residents in retirement homes.

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), on the other hand, is conducted by a health professional who uses the animal in providing their service to the client. A session includes the health professional, the client, a therapy animal and its handler.

AAT further differs from AAA in that the sessions are designed to achieve specific goals, and are documented by the health professional to record activity and progress.

 In mental therapy, the animal is seen as a friend and ally, thus presenting a safe atmosphere for sharing. Therapists work toward goals such as improving memory, concentration and problem solving, and reducing depression and anxiety.

 In physical therapy, clients are motivated to improve motor skills, mobility and balance though exercises such as brushing the animal or walking it.

Stress release at finals time

Stress Release Clinics

The use of therapy animals in stress release clinics has become popular on college and university campuses, and is now becoming increasingly popular with high schools and even businesses.

In educational institutions, these clinics are used primarily to reduce stress and depression in students studying particularly difficult curriculums, or studying for final exams. Visits with therapy animals have been reported by students to serve as a more healthy method of stress relief, as opposed to stereotypical alternatives such as binge drinking.

Businesses hold stress release clinics during difficult periods in their business cycle, for example an accounting firm might hold a clinic during tax season.

Therapy Dogs at Work at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette

Animal-Assisted Reading Programs

Penelope at a homeless shelter

When children read to others, it not only helps improve their reading, vocabulary and comprehension skills, but also their confidence and self-esteem. But children with poor reading skills can be intimidated, too self-conscious and fearful of ridicule to participate in classroom reading activities.

In animal-assisted reading programs in schools, libraries and other facilities, children read to animals in a safe, non-judgmental environment. They are able to relax and concentrate on the task, while the amimals's handler is present to help with reading and comprehension.

Crisis Response

Photo: TN Safety Spotters

Therapy animal organizations that specialize in crisis response are invited by local authorities to place therapy dog teams in areas recovering from crisis. The teams provide comfort, emotional support, and hope to the victims of the crisis, as well as to emergency responders and the staff of other crisis response organizations.

Victims of crisis often shut down emotionally and stop thinking clearly. The presence of a dog, and especially physical contact with one, can help calm a person, allowing them to think more clearly. They are then in a better position to communicate their needs to those working to support them.

Crisis response teams are specially trained to work in stressful, unpredictable environments.

Therapy Animal Organizations

Photo courtesy Columbia River Pet Partners

A woman told me that she owned a therapy dog.

She explained that she had been taking her dog on visits to see her mother, who resided in an assisted living home. Everyone at the facility fell in love with her dog and looked forward to their weekly visits. So when her mother passed away, she continued her visits with the other residents.

Was her dog a therapy dog? Sure, why not? It certainly did the work. But as you will read, there are a number of good reasons to register with a therapy animal organization. In addition, most facilities require that you be registered with an organization in order to visit their facility.

If you have a local therapy animal organization in your area, or a chapter or affiliate of a national organization, you may find it rewarding to become a member and enjoy the camaraderie and support of fellow members. A local organization will be active in your community, helping to find facilities that are seeking therapy animal visits and placing teams in those facilities.

As a member of a local organization, you will also have the opportunity to enjoy participating in such activities as training classes, evaluations, fundraising, and community events.

You can search the web for an organization in your area, or search for a local Pet Partners Community Partner Group here:

 Pet Partners Community Partner Groups

Requirements and Rules

Photo courtesy Prescription Pets

Therapy animal organizations each have their own requirements and rules you must follow in order to become a member and to be protected by their insurance policy.

To get an idea what an evaluation might be like, the AKC's Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) Program is a good place to start. Most therapy animal evaluations are similar to or an extension of the CGC test designed for dogs.

That said, organizations do differ in many ways. For example, some require that both the animal and handler be evaluated, while others only evaluate the animal. And some require periodic evaluations, while others only require that your registration be renewed every year or two.

Here are some other examples of the requirements and rules of various organizations:

 While serving under the auspices of the organization, you must serve as a volunteer and not receive compensation

 Minimum age requirements for you and your animal

 Your animal must be spayed or neutered

 Your animal may not be fed a raw protein diet

 Your animal must have a record of vaccination in accordance with your vet's recommendations

 Your animal must be bathed before each visit

 You and your animal must wear ID while on the job

 Your animal must be kept on a leash of a maximum length while on the job

 You may only serve with one animal at at time

 You may not serve under the auspices of a second organization

Altogether, the list sounds very limiting. Remember that these are just examples, and that they do not apply to all organizations. Nevertheless, if one of them is an issue for you, you will want to consider it in selecting an organization to work with.


Photo courtesy Paws to Heal

Unfortunately, especially in the very litigious United States, we have to worry about being sued even when we aren't at fault. Also, while your animal might never bite someone, their nails or even their teeth could scratch them accidentally. And we have to be especially careful with the elderly who may have thinner, softer, less elastic skin.

If you have a homeowner's policy, it may include coverage for just such an accident. However, if you file a claim for an animal bite, you may then be required to either get rid of your animal or change insurance companies.

Of course not everyone has a homeowner's policy, or one with adequate coverage. And even for those who do, being covered by a policy designed for therapy animals might be the wiser choice.

So before registering with a therapy animal organization, be sure to find out if they offer insurance that will cover any liability you might be exposed to in the work you plan to do with your animal.


Pet Partners Class

If you have a dog, it may not need any training at all! Therapy dogs simply have to be very obedient, tolerant, and social. And your dog is all of these things, right?

Dogs are brought to therapy dog evaluations that aren't even close to being ready for therapy dog work. They bark and pull at other dogs, and have to be taken from the room to get them under control.

If you are unsure if your "best friend" is ready for therapy dog work, the AKC's Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) Program is a good place to start. Most therapy dog evaluations are similar to or an extension of the CGC test.

If your dog needs additional training, check to see if a local therapy dog organization offers a training program or can refer you to one. Many professional dog trainers offer group classes designed to prepare you and your dog for a therapy dog evaluation.

If you have another species of animal, check with the therapy animal organization you plan to work with to learn about their evaluation so you can determine what additional training, if any, your animal will need.

Training for the handler differs with the different therapy animal organizations. Some require that you attend a training program, while others require that you and your animal attend a training program together. Still others allow you to go directly to an evaluation. Also some organizations allow home schooling on-line or from printed materials.

Also see:

 How do I train my puppy to be a therapy dog?


Photo courtesy Hidden Oaks Llama Ranch

A few therapy dog organizations only require that you submit a copy of an AKC Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) Program certification along with your application in order to register with them. Most organizations, however, require that you be evaluated by members of their own organization.

If an organization offers a training program, it's a great way to prepare for their evaluation. But whether they do or not, one of the best things you can do to prepare is to volunteer to assist at an evaluation and observe those being evaluated.

One of the most important things you can do during your evaluation, and in the therapy animal work you do afterward, is to be proactive. Most organizations do not treat the evaluation like an obedience trial, where a dog is to perform flawlessly with only minimal direction from its handler. In an evaluation, you are welcome to assist your animal just as you would on the job.

Here are a couple of examples of therapy dog handlers being proactive:

1. If you see another dog enter the room, tell your dog so it doesn't feel the need to tell you with a bark. This is being proactive, rather than acting after your dog barks, which would be reactive. Or doing nothing, which would be inactive.

2. Let's say three people are aggressively moving toward your dog and asking to pet it. That could be scary! So be proactive, and reach down and pick up your dog or bend down and physically connect with it. It will then feel secure with your contact, and should be fine being petting by any number of people.

Taking these proactive actions is exactly what you will be doing on the job.

This video provides a demonstration of a Pet Partners evaluation and will give you an idea of how an evaluation is conducted. Total playtime for all exercises: 16:45

How to Get Involved

Photo courtesy of Lilly and Peanut

If there are local therapy animal organizations in your area, contacting one of them is the best way to learn about opportunities to serve in your area. They will be able to tell you how you can register with them, or with one of the national organizations they work with.

To find a local organization in your area, search the web or search for a local Pet Partners Community Partner Group here:

 Pet Partners Community Partner Groups

If you can't find a local organization, contact some of the facilities in your area and ask them what local or national organizations are represented by the therapy animal teams that visit their facility.

I began working under the auspices of my local Humane Society. Then when I wanted to work in a hospital, I found that our local hospitals only accepted registration with the national organization Pet Partners. I created the page Getting Started with Pet Partners to give direction to people interested in becoming registered Pet Partners therapy animal teams.