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Published By Hilary Young on June 22, 2017

Dog therapy is a relatively new form of therapy that is gaining traction in the healthcare field. While once considered to be alternative, or holistic, it has crossed over to the mainstream, popping up in hospitals, college campuses and even airports all across the country.

The goal of dog therapy is to provide comfort and joy to those who are sick, stressed, anxious or depressed. Many people, however, have some misconceptions about the dogs that are used in dog therapy programs. We’ve identified five of the most important things to know about therapy dogs below.

How Does a Dog Become a Therapy Dog?

All therapy dogs are evaluated and certified by the organizations that run therapy dog programs. Regardless of the program, certified therapy dogs are tested and evaluated to ensure they have a calm temperament, and most organizations also require evaluations and trainings for those handling the dogs. For example, the Alliance of Therapy Dogs “will monitor you and your dog during three visits to facilities that include two visits to a medical facility. During these supervised visits, the T/O (Tester/Observer) will instruct you and your dog on the art of visiting and give you advice and guidance while observing you in action. If all goes well, the T/O will pass you and your dog and recommend you for registration with ATD.”

What Is the Difference Between a Therapy Dog and a Service Dog?

Therapy dogs and service dogs can often be confused for one another; however, they serve two very different purposes. Therapy dogs are not trained to support individuals; rather, they are continuously exposed to new people. Service dogs are trained to assist individuals, as they perform tasks for their owners who have disabilities. Service dogs are also legally protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which allows people who need service dogs into businesses, onto public transportation and into other places where dogs are not typically allowed.

Who Started the Therapy Dog Program?

It’s unclear exactly how dogs started being used for therapy, since the human-canine connection seems to date back centuries, but perhaps the most well-known story about using a dog for therapeutic purposes is about a little Yorkshire terrier named Smoky who was found overseas by a soldier during WWII. Smoky joined the nurses of the 233rd Station Hospital who were tending to causalities after an invasion on Biak Island.

Fast forward to 1976, when Elaine Smith decided to organize an official dog therapy program called Therapy Dogs International. TDI was launched in New Jersey with five handlers, five German Shepherds and one Collie. TDI’s goal is “to unite and increase the number of available therapy dogs, give them the recognition they deserve, and to educate facilities about the importance and benefit of therapy dog visits.” Today, TDI has registered over 25,000 handler/dog teams that work with organizations in all 50 states and Canada.

Who Benefits From Therapy Dogs?

Therapy dogs have been used to help the elderly in nursing homes, inmates in prison, anxious travelers at airports, stressed-out college students, those living at home alone as they age, and special-needs schools and centers, among others. Basically, everyone benefits from spending time with a therapy dog!

What Are the Physical Effects of Dog Therapy?

There are a multitude of positive physical effects associated with dog therapy, including:

  • Lowered blood pressure.
  • Improved cardiovascular health.
  • The release of endorphins, which create a sense of calm.
  • Diminished overall sense of pain.
  • Improved recovery time after a health emergency.

Therapy Dogs Will Come to You

Several of our Right at Home offices across the country offer dog therapy as part of their care services. If you are interested, give them a call!


Hilary Young is a writer dedicated to helping older Americans live healthier, more fulfilling lives. She currently blogs for HuffPost50, Fifty Is The New Fifty and Medical Guardian. You can find her on Twitter as @hyoungcreative.


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