Riya is an accountant during the week and a therapy dog handler on weekends. She, along with Biscuit, her three-year-old Golden Retriever, is part of an organization that arranges dog visits to hospitals, schools, and homes to help people with depression and stress. Biscuit forms a team with Riya to provide Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), a program where the animal is trained to bring about therapeutic effects.
The primary purpose of therapy dogs, also known as ‘comfort dogs,’ is to foster all-round healing. Their even temperament makes them natural mood-boosters facilitating emotional well-being.
Dog therapy and AAT are gaining popularity in India as more pet parents learn the benefits of sustained interaction programs between humans and animals. AAT practitioners swear by the success stories they have been a part of and there are plenty of children and adults alike who have experienced positive changes with dog therapy.
So, how do therapy dogs work? How do you become the owner of a therapy dog? Here’s a primer for you.
Are therapy dogs effective?
The resounding answer is, yes! Several studies have shown the effectiveness of using therapy dogs in various physical and mental health issues ranging from injury pain relief to reducing blood pressure. Dogs also help in improving self-esteem, and motivation and the general cognitive quality of life.
A 12-minute session with a dog improved lung and heart function by lowering blood pressure, reducing harmful hormones, and easing anxiety among heart patients
American Heart Association
Trained to heal
Becoming a therapy dog is somewhat of a career choice. For both the pet parent and the dog in question because therapy dogs are different from the average pet. Sure, a pet dog also gives unconditional love, but they still have unpredictable behaviours, which are not amenable to therapy. “Would my dog make a good therapy dog?” The answer to that depends on the breed, temperament, age, and other factors. If your dog naturally enjoys interacting with people, and is calm and friendly then they make a good candidate.
Getting your dog ready
Get your dog evaluated by your veterinarian to meet necessary parameters like vaccinations, fitness, and behaviour. Puppies are too young to qualify as a therapy dog. The ideal age range is approximately between 2 and 8 years. Therapy dog training involves holding mock sessions, sensitising them to sudden movements and noises, and testing their hand-eye coordination, etc. There are several tests to ensure a dog is ready to take part in therapy sessions like:
Allowing friendly strangers to approach
Ability to move around without a leash
Obedience to commands
Not reacting violently to other dogs
Ability to focus on tasks at hand
Dogs will need to be formally assessed before they are certified to be a therapy dog. The Animal Angels Foundation is one of India’s most popular registered organisations in the field of AAT, and they provide the necessary training and certification too.
Being a therapy dog parent
Therapy dogs can be trained, but are you ready to be a handler? Being a therapy dog owner opens you up to new experiences, which benefit the community and society. You get to meet new people and enjoy the wholesome satisfaction of having made a difference in someone’s life. A therapy dog is good for not just the patient but for its owner too, as they positively impact your mental and emotional health.
Therapy dogs vs. service dogs
Although, both types of dogs bring comfort and healing to the people they deal with there are marked differences between the jobs they do. Service dogs have a strictly defined purpose and receive rigorous, task-oriented training in carrying out their purpose. Service dogs are trained specifically to assist people with disabilities enabling them to be more independent. For instance, service dogs can help people with visual, hearing, or physical mobility issues move around safely.
Pet therapy is, no doubt, advantageous when used in conjunction with primary counselling and therapy. And while the mention of AAT or pet therapy immediately makes us think of dogs, other animals like birds, rabbits, horses, cats, and others can also be used to complement therapy treatment sessions. As a complementary method to medication, meditation, cognitive-behavioral therapy, etc. pet therapy can act as a catalyst for great breakthroughs that change your life for good. So, go ahead, take on this pet project and make a pawsitive impact!