Therapy and Assistance/Service Dogs

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servdog1With great accuracy, a well-known adage tells us that, “Dogs are man’s best friend.” This old saying could easily be extrapolated to include women and children too.

The truth is that many people are convinced that these four-pawed creatures are the kind of friends who can promote amazing changes and, in some cases, even work miracles.

Pets in Action

Animals, particularly dogs, and humans have experienced a special relationship since the beginning of recorded history.  A wide assortment of canine breeds have willingly provided us with companionship, loyalty, and love throughout the centuries without asking for much in return.

It appears that we, humans, are the ones who actually derive much more from these relationships than the dogs do. Studies have shown that a strong  bond  between a  human and an animal can have an incredibly positive effect on an individual’s mental and physical being.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While virtually all dogs have a positive effect on humans, certain dogs are specifically chosen and trained  to aid and benefit humans. These dogs fall into two main categories.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are specially trained to offer companionship, affection, and comfort to individuals in need. A wide range of breeds can be used as therapy dogs, as long as the dog is calm, friendly, has a stable temperament, and is responsive to training.

servdog6Serving in hospitals, schools, nursing homes, homeless shelters, mental facilities, prisons, schools, disaster areas, and other sites, the dogs provide a connection, closeness, friendly face, non-judgmental presence, and a friendly, cold nose to nuzzle.

People are invited to pet, stroke, and even brush dogs during these special visits. If the dogs are small enough ( with permission) people can hold them in their laps or the dogs can be carefully placed on a bed or other safe location. Some dogs will do simple tricks or obedience routines to entertain and help people take their minds off their problems.

Therapy dogs must also be well behaved around other dogs. They must listen to their handlers, allow strangers to touch them all over, not jump on people when interacting, walk on leash without pulling, not mind strange noises and smells,  not be afraid of people who are unstable, be current on all vaccines required by local laws, and  be clean.  The dogs must also be able to absorb a certain amount of stress without becoming stressed themselves.servdog4

Therapy dogs generally wear an identifying jacket to mark them as special and to minimize the potential  of shedding during their visits. Hospitals may certify their own therapy dog squadron or make arrangements with a mental health agency or a therapy dog group. To become certified and actively participate, therapy dogs must usually meet the standards set by one of the many organizations that exist.

A Special Place for Therapy Dogs - Reading Partners

More and more therapy dogs are being brought to libraries to work their magic.  They are routinely used to help children learn how to read  by allowing the children to completely express themselves without judgment. Also, reading to a therapy dog can help raise a child’s self esteem.

servdog3Often, the children who are chosen to participate in therapy reading programs are those who have difficulties reading and are thus lacking confidence in their abilities.  They are often self-conscious when reading aloud in front of other classmates. By sitting down next to a dog and reading to that dog, all threats of being judged are put aside. The child undoubtedly relaxes, pats the attentive dog, and focuses on the reading.

Usually, reading skills improve because the child is practicing his or her skills, building self-esteem, and associating reading with something pleasant.  The process also builds excitement about reading. In fact, many children talk about going home and reading to their own dogs or other pets.

Operation Purple Solace for the Children of Soldiers

In a splendid association, HOPE Animal Assisted Crisis Response and the American Humane Association joined together in a mutual effort to work with the National Military Family Association to bring animal assisted therapy to military children through a program called Operation Purple.servdog2

Operation Purple camps provide military children the opportunity to escape the stresses of a parent’s deployment by spending time in a camp experience with children in similar situations for a free week of summer fun.

The time spent with these specifically trained therapy dogs and their teams provides a morale boost to campers and allows them to work through stress and unsettling times in a positive and productive way.

One of the canine “stars” of the 2013 summer session was a dog named Carlos who was named the winner of the Third Annual Hero Dog Awards at Operation Purple Camp.  Not only has Carlos completed superior work with the children of deployed military parents, he served in Iraq and Afghanistan for over three years as an explosives detection dog.  Following this, Carlos was adopted and now visits civic organizations and schools, spreading the word about dogs who serve in the military.

Assistance/Service Dogs

A service animal is an animal (usually a dog, but sometimes a miniature horse or other animal) that has been individually trained to perform tasks and do work for an individual with disabilities.

Not only do service dogs include guide dogs for the blind,  but increasingly, these special animals include those that are being used to assist patients with other challenges such as hearing disorders, mental disorders, autism, and other conditions.   For instance, in 2009, the Society for Companion Animal Studies Journal reported that service animals can help facilitate daily routines and reduce behavioral outbursts in children with autism.

In another example, dogs have been trained to detect when someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is experiencing a flashback to a traumatic situation. The animals (that possibly react because they detect changes in patients’ motion, routine, and body language) help the veterans get out of it by nudging their partner or laying on him or her. Other evidence suggests that animals can assist schizophrenics who are hallucinating.

While some animal breeds are favored more than others for service, the primary concern is the animal’s temperament.  Dogs, for example, are chosen for being friendly, easy to handle, loyal, and patient. Typically, a potential service animal undergoes extensive behavioral testing before being accepted into a training program.

The training for a service animal represents considerable work, as the animal must be trained to be good natured and obedient in a variety of situations, while also protective of its owner.  For example, service animals are taught to perform tasks such as looking out for traffic when their owners are blind, or alerting a deaf owner to a potential hazard. At the same time,  service animals are taught “intelligent disobedience,” meaning that they will refuse to carry out an order which they perceive to be dangerous.

Important Distinctions

Here are some important distinctions between service animals and therapy animals.

(1) In the US, there are extensive legal protections for service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  According to the ADA, a service animal must be allowed everywhere its owner is, and shall not be treated as a “pet.”  Failure to admit someone with a service animal into a business or workplace is grounds for a very serious lawsuit (with the possible exception of restaurants). This law does not apply to therapy animals.

(2) Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are encouraged to socialize and interact with a variety of people while they are on-duty.  Additionally, service dogs live with people with disabilities 24/7 while therapy dogs usually visit various locations at varying times.

(3) Above all, a service animal is not a pet, although the animal is probably loved by its owners. If you see someone with a service animal, always ask for permission before petting or handling it, and be aware that if the animal is working, you may not be allowed to touch it.

(4) Service animals are considerably more than highly trained companions.  Working in concert with their disabled partners, service dogs help their handlers attain a level of independence and freedom they would not be able to achieve otherwise.

(5) Service dogs are entitled to freely access buildings and transportation (buses, trains planes).  Proof or certification is not required although many organizations that train service dogs give their handlers some sort of ID for their dog.

(6) Many service animals are also registered with a service animal organization and a state or national service animal registry, but this is not required.

Perhaps most importantly, the dogs in both categories have one crucial fact in common: their innate ability to offer unconditional and unlimited love to all they encounter.

 Jan Goldberg



National Military Family Association – Operation Purple Camps

National Military Family Association – Operation Purple Camps

Therapy Dogs Inc.

How Guide Dogs Help the Disabled

Assistance Dogs International

Assistance Dogs - PAWS with a Cause

Assistance Dogs

Cesar Therapy Dogs

Therapy Dogs are Just What the doctor Ordered

The Good Dog Foundation

Reading Education Assistance Dogs

Therapy dog Organizations

Twelve Photos of Therapy Dogs Providing Comfort After Tragedies

Ten Small Dog Breeds for Therapy

Please Don’t Pet Me

Therapy Dogs Inc., Brochure

Therapy Dogs International

Dogs ease veterans’ trauma at Bay Area VA center

New Horizons for Therapy Dogs

Gone  to the Dogs: Kids Connect with Canine Classmates

Nick News: “Service Dogs: Training a Service dog”

Therapy Dog Stories

Operation Purple Dogs

Canine Companions for Independence
(Watch the video)

Angel Service Dogs

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  • Jan Goldberg

    San Francisco SPCA volunteers recently began visiting the airport with certified therapy dogs as part of the new “Wag Brigade” program which is aiming to relieve stress for travelers.
    Super concept!

    Jan Goldberg

  • Jan Goldberg

    Dogs can be taught to help diabetics. “Dogs for Diabetics,” a Concord, CA-based nonprofit organization, is just one of the groups that trains and places canines who can identify hypoglycemia and alert their owners to their condition. These very special canines are able to aggressively nudge their masters to consciousness when the people are in need of medical attention . They are truly loving life savers

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