You’re probably already familiar with dogs who guide the blind, sniff out cancer and warn their owners of an impending threat. But these long-time faithful companions continue to surprise us with their innate empathy. Recently, it’s emerged that dogs are an invaluable aid in comforting trauma victims and patients in nursing homes and hospitals. And so a whole new industry is born, namely pet therapy.

What is pet therapy?Pet therapy dog

Whereas service dogs are trained to provide a specific service to people with disabilities, therapy dogs are good listeners. The way they interact with people, combined with their unconditional love, enable them to bring joy and solace to patients in hospitals and nursing homes. They’ve even proven effective in helping disabled patients improve their mobility. An article in the Guardian describes how a Pomeranian named Fidel helped a stroke victim regain movement in his hands by persistently dropping a ball in his lap and encouraging him to throw it.

Positive results

Pet therapy has also produced positive results when implemented at disaster sites. In the wake of a disaster, the trauma is too raw for victims to benefit from therapy. Animals calm and relax victims to the point where they can open up and talk about the trauma. Disaster workers also benefit from pet therapy. Animals successfully helped Fema workers deployed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy cope with the tragedy.

They can also assist children with learning exercises that require patience and persistence, such as reading. Not by actually teaching them to read of course, that would be quite the achievement in dog training; but by simply lying still and listening to them read. The children feel like they have an audience, which makes them more inclined to practice their elocution skills. Whats more, not only does their audience appear to be listening intently, they’re listening without judgement, which frees the child of any insecurity they might have experienced when reading to an adult.

While service dogs aren’t encouraged to interact with anyone other than their handlers, friendly interaction from therapy dogs is encouraged. This makes them a source of comfort to patients and staff in general when they arrive at a hospital or nursing home, as well as the people they’ve come to visit.

Why does it work?


The idea of incorporating animals into therapy isn’t entirely new; doctors were attempting to do just that as early as the 1700s. But the past ten years has seen pet therapy’s popularity rise. Hospitals that once forbade pets from entering due to the fear they would bring in germs now have official programmes in place that incorporate therapy animals.

Studies are still inconclusive as to what it is exactly that makes pet therapy so effective. There is no shortage of theories, however. The bond between man and dog has a biological element, as being around dogs increases dopamine (the feel good hormone) in humans. Studies have also shown that having pets lowers blood pressure. The American Heart Association has stated that owning a dog can lower risk of heart disease.

Sandra Barker, professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University and director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the university, posits the biophilia hypothesis. It’s the theory that humans have an innate need to connect with other living things. Of particular significance is pets’ capacity to provide unconditional and non-judgemental compassion.

It’s not open to everyone

Whatever the case, pet therapy continues to gain traction. Anyone can train therapy dogs. However, they must meet certain standards to obtain certification from therapy dog training organisations. Owners usually handle certified therapy dogs. In some cases, professional handlers take the dogs.

Owners of therapy dogs should bear in mind that they do not have the same legal authority as service dogs; the latter being allowed to enter places that are strictly forbidden to pets whereas the former are not. However,  certain cases may require exceptions to be made. It’s important to remember how far we’ve come from the days when dogs weren’t allowed in hospitals or nursing homes at all.

Dogs aren’t the only used in therapeutic situations, cats, rabbits and even horses have been proven effective.