Golden Retrievers are often used as therapy dogs due to their calm demeanor, gentle disposition, and friendliness to strangers.
Golden Retrievers are often used as therapy dogs due to their calm demeanor, gentle disposition, and friendliness to strangers.

A therapy dog is a dog that is trained to provide affection, comfort and support to people, often in settings such as hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, libraries, hospices, or disaster areas. In contrast to assistance dogs, which are trained to assist specific patients with their day-to-day physical needs, therapy dogs are trained to interact with all kinds of people, not just their handlers.

Dogs have been utilized as a therapeutic resource by many medical professionals over the last few centuries. In the late 1800s, Florence Nightingale observed that small pets helped reduce anxiety and improve recovery in children and adults living in psychiatric institutions.[1] Sigmund Freud began using his own pet dog to improve communication with his psychiatric patients in the 1930s.[2][3] More recently, Elaine Smith established the first therapy dog organization in 1976 after observing positive effects of dogs on hospital patients during her work as a registered nurse.[4][5]


In order for a dog to be a good candidate to become a therapy dog and receive certification, they should be calm and social with strangers. They should also be able to adjust to loud noises and fast movements.[6] There are certain steps that are needed for a dog to become certified by a national organization such as The Alliance of Therapy Dogs, e.g., to socialize the dog around other animals and people. They are tested on behaviors such as not jumping on people and being able to walk on a loose leash. Exact testing/certification requirements differ based on the organization's requirements. Some organizations offer classes such as "distraction-proofing", which strengthens the dog's ability to focus and therapy training to help prepare the dog and the dog's owner for therapy visits.[7]

Although therapy dogs are not limited to a certain size or breed, common breeds used in therapy dog application and research include the Golden Retriever and the Labrador Retriever.[8][9][10] Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are considered natural therapy dogs since they were bred to be companion dogs. Thus they love meeting new people including children, are very gentle, and are eager to sit on someone's lap for long periods of time and are small enough to do so.[11][12]

Therapy dogs offer many benefits to people and patients. For example, therapy dogs help patients participate in physical activities. They also help encourage them to have cognitive, social, and communication goals.[13]


Florence Nightingale pioneered the idea of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). She discovered that patients of different ages living in a psychiatric institution were relieved from anxiety when they were able to spend time with small animals.[14] Freud believed that dogs could sense certain levels of tension being felt by his patients. Freud also used his dog to improve communication with his patients. He felt as if his patients were more comfortable talking to his dog at first and this opened up doors for them to later feel more comfortable talking to him.[14] The use of therapy can also be attributed to Elaine Smith,[15][16] a registered nurse. While a chaplain and his dog visited, Smith noticed the comfort that this visit seemed to bring the patients. In 1976, Smith started a program for training dogs to visit institutions, and the demand for therapy dogs continued to grow.


Therapy dogs are usually not assistance or service dogs, but can be one or both with some organizations.

Many organizations provide evaluation and registration for therapy dogs. Typical tests might ensure that a dog can handle sudden loud or strange noises; can walk on assorted unfamiliar surfaces comfortably; are not frightened by people with canes, wheelchairs, or unusual styles of walking or moving; get along well with children and the elderly; and so on. Institutions may invite, limit, or prohibit access by therapy dogs. If allowed, many institutions have requirements for therapy dogs. United States-based Therapy Dogs International (TDI) bans the use of service dogs in their therapy dog program.[15][16] Service dogs perform tasks for persons with disabilities and have a legal right to accompany their owners in most areas.[17]

In Canada, St John Ambulance provides therapy dog certification. In the UK, Pets As Therapy (PAT) provides visiting dogs and cats to establishments where pets are otherwise not available. Also in the UK, Therapy Dogs Nationwide (TDN) and Canine Concern CIO provide visiting dogs to establishments.


There are three classifications for therapy dogs. The most common type of therapy dogs are therapeutic visitation dogs. These dogs are usually household pets; the owner of these dogs will take their pets to hospitals, nursing homes or rehabilitation facilities to visit patients. These dogs are used to improve the mental health of patients through socialization and encouragement. Another type of therapy dog is animal-assisted therapy dogs (AAT). Dogs who fall under this category have the duty of providing assistance to patients to reach certain goals towards their recovery. They work to help patients gain skills such as motor skills, use of limbs and hand-eye coordination. They do this by walking patients through certain activities and games to help them practice these skills. These dogs are usually based in rehabilitation facilities. The last type of therapy dog is a facility therapy dog. These dogs usually work in nursing homes along with their handlers. They live at the facility and help patients with Alzheimer's disease and other cognitive and mental illnesses.[18]

Legal status

United States

In the United States, therapy dogs are defined but not covered or protected under the Federal Housing Act or Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, only dogs that are "individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability" have legal protection as a service animal.[19][20] Therapy dogs do not have public access rights with exception to the specific places they are visiting and working.[clarification needed] Typically the dog would be granted rights by individual facilities only. Therapy dogs are subjected to several tests to ensure that they are fit for the job. These tests look at their ability to block out distractions, comfort level around a variety of people with many different disabilities, and if they are comfortably able to walk through many different terrains.

While some states define therapy animals and emotional support animals, they are not protected by federal laws,[19] and therefore can be prohibited from businesses, restaurants and many other locations.[21]



Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) has been reported to improve many psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression, social skills, and simply improving the moods of the patient.[22][23][14][medical citation needed]

Additional psychological benefits of therapy dog programs in educational settings include provided comfort, companionship, a diversion to unpleasant thoughts or situations, and deceased resistance to relationship development in the therapy process.[24][medical citation needed]

Psychological benefits in school setting

Greyhound therapy dogs in an elementary school in North Port, Florida
Greyhound therapy dogs in an elementary school in North Port, Florida

The University of Connecticut uses therapy dogs in their program Paws to Relax, available during finals week to help students deal with increased anxiety. The school uses them in other stressful situations, including suicides and deadly automobile accidents.[25] Since 2011, Yale Law School has used therapy dogs to aid students experiencing stress.[26] Some colleges and universities in the US bring therapy dogs to campus to help students de-stress. These campus events are often referred to as "Therapy Fluffies", a term coined by Torrey Trust, the original founder of the University of California San Diego therapy dog de-stress event.[27] In 2009, Sharon Franks shared the idea of bringing therapy dogs to campus with the UC San Diego Office of Student Wellness.[28]

Since the autumn of 2010, "Therapy Fluffies" has visited the UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Riverside campuses during the week before mid-term and final exams.[29][30] These events give students and staff the opportunity to pet and relax with therapy-certified dogs.[31] The university also works with the Inland Empire Pet Partners, a service of the Humane Society to bring therapy-certified dogs to the campus' Mental Health Day Spa, held quarterly.[32][33]

In 2014, Concordia University, Wisconsin became the first university in the US to adopt a full-time therapy dog to its campus in Mequon, Wisconsin. The golden retriever, Zoey, is a Lutheran church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog, trained to interact with people at churches, schools, nursing homes, hospitals, events, and in disaster response situations.[34] Concordia later purchased a second comfort dog, named Sage.[35]

Stressful situations

Therapy dogs were used to offer comfort to faculty, staff and students following the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting in Blacksburg, Virginia, when 32 people were killed.[26] On December 14, 2012, therapy dogs were brought to the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, following the shooting and deaths of 26 people, providing comfort to children and parents.

In Uganda, The Comfort Dog Project pairs dogs with those traumatized by war. Participants learn how to care for and train the animals as the dogs assist with confidence, help with depression and assist with recovery from post traumatic stress disorder.[36]


Programs such as the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program promote literacy and communication skills. The practice uses therapy dogs to encourage children to read aloud by giving them a nonjudgmental listener.[37][38][39][40][41][42] It has been proven that the academic performance and children's enthusiasm for reading has increased by having a therapeutic dog with them, especially in children with special education.[43] Goals of canine-assisted reading programs include increasing reading fluency, increasing motivation to read, providing encouragement for reluctant readers, and making reading fun.[44]

These cognitive benefits can be seen in libraries as well as schools.[45] Internationally, there are programs that use therapy dogs in educational settings such as Germany,[46] Argentina,[47] Finland (Lukukoira Sylvi from Kuopio, Finland was the first animal nominated for Citizen of the Year),[48] and Croatia,[49] for example.

An article published by the American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease & Other Dementias reported that during visits with dogs, residents with dementia were able to be involved in special activities and were more verbal than usual.[14] Researchers have identified further cognitive benefits of therapy dogs, which include an increase in mental stimulation and assistance in the recall of memories and the sequence of events.[24]


Interaction with therapy dogs improves cardiovascular health, and as a result patients may need less medication. Personal pet visitation and animal-assisted interventions (AAIs) can benefit patients' pain, blood pressure, stress, depression, and anxiety, as well as increasing mobility and socialization with staff and families.[50] Further, petting animals promotes the release of hormones that can elevate moods, specifically serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin.[24] Patients receiving occupational therapy have improved their fine motor skills by grooming therapy dogs.[51] Studies have found decreased cortisol levels in children with insecure attachment styles, children with autistic spectrum disorder, in hospital patients with heart failure, and in healthcare professionals, after physical contact with a dog.[52]


Therapy dogs promote greater self-esteem in students and encourage positive interactions with peers and teachers.[26] Additionally, children with autism demonstrated increased verbal abilities and social interaction during therapy sessions when animals were present compared to traditional therapy sessions without them.[24]


There are some concerns with using therapy dogs with children and adults in various public facilities. Some include hygiene, allergies, cross-cultural expectations, safety of participants, animal welfare, and lack of consistent training or certification process and liability.[53] AAI (animal-assisted interventions) and AAA (animal-assisted activities) are facilitated by human/dog teams with extensive therapy dog training and have obtained behavioral and health evaluations. They follow guidelines for cleanliness (bathing and brushing dogs before sessions, keeping vaccinations up to date, trimming nails, human hand washing before and after visits) to alleviate most hygiene concerns.[54] In all of these locations, patrons, students or patients are often required to take responsibility for their interactions with dogs in the form of a liability release or parental permission form. Advance considerations of the responsibilities of handlers and the institution or organization include insurance and background checks to address liability.[55] While insurance claims against trained dog teams are rare, it is advised[by whom?] to be prepared.[56] Since therapy dog interaction is an optional activity, those with allergies, those who develop anxiety when near dogs, or those with general opposition to the program need not participate.

See also


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