People who call a dog their own know the phenomenon: the proximity to the dog relaxes the stressed soul and nerves, comforts grief, and relieves anxiety. This healing effect that dogs have on many people is medically proven. No wonder, then, that the use of so-called therapy dogs is increasing. But not every dog is equally capable of this. Find out more about what the therapy dog is all about here.
Therapy dog - what does that mean?
Therapy dogs are professionally trained dogs that are used for medical purposes. They help people to overcome certain diseases or alleviate the symptoms of the disease. Therapy dogs are used in a targeted manner as part of medical treatments and have so far proven particularly effective in speech therapy, curative education, ergotherapy, and psychotherapy. They alleviate states of anxiety, outbursts of aggression, speech or social disorders, and a variety of stress symptoms.
The field of application of therapy dogs is called “animal-assisted therapy” and is still a young field of medical therapy. Therefore, the use (and training) of therapy dogs are subject to constant further development. The therapy dog fulfills a specific task within a therapeutic session, which is individually defined beforehand.
Boundaries between a therapy dog, assistance dog, and visiting dog
- A therapy dog is different from so-called assistance or companion dogs, which are constant companions of people with mental or physical disabilities.
- A further distinction is made to so-called visiting dogs. These are managed by accompanying staff and are mainly used in old people’s or children’s homes. Here they should help those affected to social interaction.
Becoming a therapy dog – can any dog do that?
In principle, all domestic dogs can become therapy dogs, regardless of breed, size, or gender. However, you must meet some basic requirements. First and foremost is a gentle, patient character who is not easily disturbed. Future therapy dogs meet people without suspicion or aggression and attract attention with their balanced, self-confident but not dominant or pushy nature.
- On the way to becoming a therapy dog, suitable candidates and their handlers must complete a companion dog exam. The dog-human team has to prove that they harmonize perfectly with each other. Special tests round off the training of dog handlers and therapy dogs.
- Dogs that show great affection for people are particularly suitable for a career as a therapy dog. Certain breeds are more predestined for this than others. Certain hunting dog breeds, companion dogs, and companion dogs are included.
- Dog breeds such as Magyar Vizsla, Labrador, Golden Retriever, or Poodle have proven themselves. The gentle giants like the Bernese Mountain Dog, St. Bernard, Leonberger, and Newfoundland are also unshakable. But it does not always have to be a pedigree dog, because mixed breeds often have very good prerequisites for a therapy dog.
- Whether the therapy dog should be rather large or small often depends on the therapeutic area of application. Stable, robust dogs are more suitable for children, adolescents, and mentally handicapped adults. On the other hand, smaller therapy dogs are a better choice for old and frail patients.
Early practice: early selection as a therapy dog
Professional therapy dogs are often selected when they are puppies and trained early on. Special puppy tests and regular observation of the young dogs in their development are used to evaluate the young therapy dog candidates. As the demand for therapy dogs continues to rise, so does purposeful breeding with a corresponding focus on suitable traits. The puppies from these connections grow up in a pack of trained therapy dogs right from the start and learn the corresponding characteristics from their dog parents at an early age.
What does a therapy dog do?
Dogs seem to develop a “seventh sense” for when we humans are feeling bad physically or mentally. They sense the moods of their people and try to actively support them. Scientific tests have proven that using dogs therapeutically helps lower high blood pressure and reduce stress.
With its presence and attention alone, the dog creates a relaxed, comforting, and, in the truest sense of the word, healing atmosphere. His job is to convey compassion, security, and safety to the patient. This happens immediately, unconditionally, and works fascinatingly with many neurological, psychological, or social problems.
This, in turn, can be used to build on further therapeutic measures and even medications can be better absorbed by the body. This is partly explained by the hormone oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone,” which is released when people pet dogs. The therapy dog is used exclusively in a team together with a professional doctor, therapist, or educator. His handler is always at his side. Therapy dogs cannot replace medical therapy.
Rules for the benefit of therapy dogs and their patients
Therapy dog work is demanding and stressful, especially when working with mentally/physically handicapped children, groups, or unfamiliar environments with strong smells.
- Therefore, the working hours of a therapy dog are regulated by law and are usually limited to a maximum of 45 minutes per day. In exceptional cases, when several animals are used in a therapy session at the same time, the dog’s working time can be increased to two hours. A therapy dog is only allowed to accompany individual therapy sessions three times a week. This is the only way to guarantee that the therapy dog can do its job properly without becoming a therapy case itself.
- For this reason, therapy dogs may not be kept in a facility but must live with the dog owner.
- Of course, every dog used must be absolutely healthy and mentally balanced.
- Regular deworming and vet visits are mandatory for a therapy dog.
- At the same time, care must be taken to ensure that the dog does not become a carrier of infection. This does not mean the possible pathogens of dog diseases, but the so-called “nosocomial infectious agents” that occur specifically in hospitals.