A Furry Friend is the Best Medicine

A Furry Friend is the Best Medicine


The inclusion of animals in medical settings is nothing new – in fact, dogs and other animals have been visiting hospitals and other medical care facilities for over 150 years. The benefits of using therapy dogs in facilities where comfort and affection may be in short supply have become strikingly evident in recent years – and the need for these canine volunteers has grown exponentially. In fact, many people have asked me what character traits make for a good therapy dog. Since it’s a wonderful way to help someone in need, I’m glad to use this forum to discuss what makes a good therapy dog and give you an introduction to getting your dog started in this most noble of vocations.

Pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy, is a wonderful opportunity for you to share your pet with people. Dogs that are registered therapy animals visit schools, hospitals, prisons, libraries, nursing homes, and any other facility where interactions with pets help people. Pet therapy activities vary widely - from simply having a dog sit in the room with a patient to more “hands on” interactions including petting, brushing, walking, playing fetch, doing tricks or something - and all of these have been shown to help people take their mind off their own problems.

Animals can reach people in a special way because they can make people feel safe and loved unconditionally. Despite the fact that animals don’t use words, the human-animal bond is powerful and children or patients who are afraid feel braver and stronger when they are around a pet. Studies show that patients in hospitals that are visited by pets have lower blood pressure, heart rates and stress levels. Even though cats, birds, horses, rabbits and other small animals make wonderful therapists, I want to focus this post on dogs and what characteristics make them good therapy candidates.

There are some general characteristics to consider when you are trying to determine if your dog is cut out for therapy work. Therapy dogs are most successful when they enjoy interactions with people, allow strangers to pet them, can walk on a leash without pulling, can remain calm around distractions, listen to their handler and are comfortable with children and medical equipment like wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, canes or walkers. They also need to be comfortable with rough handling and jerky movements, as children and sick people may not be able to be gentle. Dogs that are brave, like to nudge your hand for attention or put their head in your lap usually are amazing therapy workers.

Generally speaking, most programs require that your dog must be above one year of age, have proof of rabies vaccination or titers and proof of a current fecal exam that is negative for infectious organisms. To become a registered therapy animal, your dog must usually undergo a temperament evaluation to make sure his or her personality is a good fit for the program. Even though the requirements vary with the program, the certification process also usually involves two or three observed visits to see how your dog does when faced with strange sights and smells.

I am familiar with several national not-for-profit programs that certify dogs for pet therapy: Therapy Dogs International (www.tdi-dog.org), Therapy Dogs, Inc. (www.therapydogs.com) or Delta Society Pet Partners (www.deltasociety.org). You can look online to see if these organizations have a local chapter in your area. When you register with one of these associations, you and your dog are protected by liability insurance when you visit, so it is a really good idea to become certified pet therapy partners. Your dog does not have to be purebred to be certified, but usually for liability purposes, wolves or wolf hybrids cannot be certified.

A therapy dog is only half of the team. You, as the handler, are just as important in the equation, and it is a good idea to ask yourself if you would make a good therapy partner for your dog. Most pet therapy associations require a minimum number of visits per year, to follow their rules and regulations, carry a membership card and vaccine records when visiting and take your dog in to see your family veterinarian yearly for a physical and a fecal exam. Many therapy animal organizations offer benefits, including primary accident and liability insurance and, in some cases scholarships, but bringing the smile to the face of a sick child or providing comfort and affection to the elderly is a unique and unforgettable benefit you’ll get nowhere else.

So what is your experience with pet-assisted therapy? I would love to hear your story, so chime in and leave a comment on this blog if you have one to share.

Thank you so much for all you do to make the world a better place for companion animals.

Dr Jane Bicks   Dr. Jane Bicks

Comments (3) -

  • Janet Roberts

    11/29/2012 7:13:34 AM |

    Great article Dr Jane!  One of my labs (Morgan) received her TDI certification this year and we are having a wonderful time with their "Tail Waggin' Tutors" reading program at our local library.  As you said, it is so rewarding to see how well the children respond to reading to Morgan, and Morgan loves all the extra attention.  There was even an article in our local newspaper about her - here is a link: www.newstribune.info/.../SEARCH  
    I would encourage anyone that is interested to check into it with their dog.

  • Eyrline Morgan

    12/8/2012 7:02:30 PM |

    My precious Pekingese, Prissy, will be thirteen in February.  I've had her since she was six month old and six pounds.  Now, after being with me through lots of turmoil, and actually saving my life, I've had to ask a friend to watch her while I'm ill.  She has a 4/6 heart murmur and a bad cough.  I have COPD, Asthma, collapsed Sept. 22 and was taken to ER with a hemoglobin of 8, dehydrated and malnourished.  Before I could overcome that, bronchitis hit again, and then pneumonia.  As much as I miss Prissy, I know she is better with my friend.  She was a therapy dog, as well as being therapy for me.  After my back surgery, I was forced to walk her several times a day, and she rewarded me with her cuddliness.  She's not snippy like most Pekingese, but sweet and loves everyone.  She even won the "Friendliness Dog" award at a Nursing Home dog contest. I had to make a choice of what was better for her now.  My friend has a Pekingese rescue service and graduates as a PA next week, so I know she is in good hands.  She's going to start bringing her to me part time and picking her up in the evenings.  Thanks for your article.

  • Cathy Mutnick

    5/24/2013 4:15:47 AM |

    I have a 6 yr. old Cocker/Cavalier King Charles who has been an awesome therapy dog (via TDI) for nearly 5 years. My girl, Chelsea, is a great demo and assistant for my training clients, but there's nothing that she enjoys more than therapy work.  Not all dogs are cut out for this calling. Training the obedience part is easy, but the dog's personality is really what makes a good therapy dog.  When I come across a client's dog that has a confident, outgoing, all-around happy disposition, I encourage them to consider therapy work. It's incredible how I can be having a challenging day, then volunteer a bit of my time at a nursing home, pediatric center or hospice and suddenly the world seems like a better place.  Chelsea has become quite popular... everyone shouts her name when we enter a facility, but few know what my name is, and I'm fine with that. I tell people she does all the work and I'm just her chauffeur.  You'd be surprised how much the STAFF of these facilities need and appreciate this work also.  Yes, it's volunteer work, but the emotional reward you will gain is priceless.

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