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The Impact Of Therapy Animals As Told By A Therapy Dog Mom

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6 min read

Updated - Apr 26th, 2022

Therapy animals provide life-changing support to people in need. Whether they’re comforting those with physical disabilities or mental health conditions, we honor their unconditional love and service every year on April 30th, National Therapy Animal Day.

This year, we couldn’t think of a better way to honor this incredible human-animal bond than to learn about it from someone who’s experienced it firsthand.

We’ve invited Kristin Tatelman, therapy animal advocate and mom to Winston, a therapy dog certified through The Alliance of Therapy Dogs, to break down what pet therapy is, the amazing therapeutic benefits it has, and how you can support the work of therapy animals and their handlers today, and every day.

What are therapy animals?

Therapy animals are trained to enhance the health and well-being of humans. These friendly, well-behaved animals serve the people in their community by providing comfort, happiness, and joy through therapeutic interaction. While cats, horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, and more have all been used therapeutically, dogs are the most common animal used in pet therapy.

Unlike a service animal or emotional support animal, therapy animals can be used for a variety of people and animal-assisted interventions. Pet therapy is done on a volunteer basis (therapy teams visit at no charge to the facility)! and the pet therapy team is made up of the therapy animal and its handler, which is usually the pet’s owner.

therapy-dog-alliance_therapy-cats-and-dogs

How does pet therapy work?

Pet therapy teams commonly visit care facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes, hospice centers, and rehab facilities. In a typical therapy dog visit to a hospital, you might find a dog resting their head on a bed while a patient strokes their fur, performing tricks to encourage smiles, or walking around the hospital floor with a man learning to walk again after a stroke. Therapy dogs may also assist healthcare professionals in therapeutic services such as counseling, physical therapy, or occupational therapy by providing animal-assisted therapy. 

You can also find therapy animals at schools, libraries, fire stations, and airports providing wellness support. Research studies have documented many health benefits to interacting with therapy animals, such as: reduced stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, increased self-esteem and motivation, and so much more.

It’s important to note: When not doing therapy work, therapy animals don’t have the same public access rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act as service animals to enter spaces that are not designated as pet-friendly. You can learn more about the differences between therapy and service animals here.

Meet Winston: My therapy dog

As an occupational therapist, I’ve seen the impact therapy dogs can have firsthand over the years. I’ve wanted to train a therapy dog for as long as I can remember!

Luckily, my two-year-old rescue dog, Winston, made this possible. As soon as Winston was adopted, I had a feeling that he might be suited for therapy work. Thought to be an Australian Shepherd and Coonhound mix, Winston’s sweet disposition, friendly temperament, and desire to learn new things, all made me think he’d excel at therapy work. We immediately started training and working towards this goal.

kristin-and-winston_therapy-cats-and-dogs

Winston and I worked hard together to pass the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test followed by the therapy certification test.  We officially became a pet therapy team through The Alliance of Therapy Dogs in April of 2021, shortly after Winston’s first birthday! In the past year, we’ve volunteered primarily at our local hospital, and we’ve also visited several local colleges during exam weeks to help students de-stress.

“Alongside a love for all people, Winston is so intuitive when it comes to understanding what type of interaction a person might need from him. I’ve loved witnessing the impact he’s had and watching him grow confident as a therapy dog.”

– Kristin

Just last week while we were visiting the hospital, there was a patient who was very anxious, agitated, and scared. She was crying and couldn’t understand why she couldn’t leave the hospital. When Winston walked into her room, her face lit up and her entire demeanor changed. Suddenly a calm washed over her, and a smile spread across her face. Instead of fear in her eyes, there was a twinkle there. It brings me so much joy to see Winston making other people happy! 

How can I get started with pet therapy or have a therapy animal visit my facility?

If you’re looking for pet therapy involving an animal other than a dog, unfortunately, there aren’t many organizations that work with other types of animals. Pet Partners is a great resource, as they’re one of the few organizations that work with other species! If you’re looking to have your dog get involved or are interested in having a dog come to your facility, there are over 200 organizations in the United States that therapy dogs can work through, including a few national organizations including Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Love on a Leash, and Pet Partners! However, there are also local non-profit organizations depending on your city and state, so research therapy dog organizations in your area.

Remember: A dog that is well-suited for therapy work is one with a friendly and stable temperament who enjoys interacting with strangers. Intermediate to advanced obedience skills are generally required for therapy work. Skills like walking calmly on a loose leash beside their handler, listening to their handler’s commands, greeting people politely, and maintaining behavior appropriate for a variety of facilities (including medical facilities) are all a must! Training for and passing the Canine Good Citizen test is a great way to help your dog acquire the skills they need for a therapy dog program. Each organization has its own certification process, so make sure you investigate the specific requirements of the organization you want to partner with!

How can I support therapy animal initiatives?

Most therapy animal organizations are operated by volunteers and rely on donations to do great work in their communities. Consider donating or fundraising for your favorite local or national organization. You can also ask what types of volunteer opportunities may be available for people who want to help in ways other than being a handler. For example, they may need assistance with website design, social media outreach, processing applications, or a variety of other tasks.

To help raise awareness for the great work therapy animal teams do, call or write to your local officials to ask that April 30th be officially proclaimed Therapy Animal Day in your city, county, or state!

REFERENCES:

Pavlides, M. (2008). Animal-assisted interventions for individuals with autism. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

 Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: The possible role of oxytocin. Frontiers in Psychology, 3. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00234

Pet Partners. (2020). Empirical support for therapy animal interventions. Pet Partners. https://petpartners.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Benefits-of-the-Human-Animal-Bond-final.pdf.

Uglow, L. S. (2019). The benefits of an animal-assisted intervention service to patients and staff at a children’s hospital. British Journal of Nursing, 28(8), 509–515. https://doi.org/10.12968/bjon.2019.28.8.509 

AKC recognized therapy dog organizations. American Kennel Club. (2017, November 29). Retrieved March 10, 2022, from https://www.akc.org/sports/title-recognition-program/therapy-dog-program/therapy-dog-organizations/

Kristin Tatelman is a pediatric occupational therapist who lives with her husband and two rescued hound mixes.