Service Dogs
Wonderful Therapy Animals 101: All About Them

Wonderful Therapy Animals 101: All About Them

It can get kind of confusing when you want to know the difference between service animals and therapy animals. Pet therapy is also referred to as “assisted animal therapy.” It is the notion that animals have healing properties just by their very existence and proximity to humans. It is not magic, but a bond between lifeforms that has many benefits.

Wonderful Therapy Animals 101: All About Them

Using animals for therapeutic reasons should not be confused with having a service animal. Service animals are trained by professionals to be of assistance to those with physical or mental disabilities. The animals perform certain tasks for them or act as alarms when dangerous conditions arise. They are the property of a single owner at a time and only the owner touches the animal.

Therapy Animals vs Service Animals

Simply put, Therapy Pets Are Not Service Animals

These two terms are not interchangeable. Service animals are trained for a specific person for specific needs such as blindness, deafness, mental disability, illness, and the like. This animal (usually a dog) stays with the individual at all times and is provided certain protections under the law.

Therapy pets, or animal-assisted therapy pets, are there for emotional support, as an adjunct to therapy sessions. They are good for elderly persons, autistic individuals, those suffering from PTSD, cancer patients, mental health patients, children, and others. Pet therapy can improve confidence and social interactions, decrease anxiety, and increase teamwork and fine motor skills.

Therapy animals are usually pets to private owners who volunteer or contract out their services to facilities that could use their help. These animals don’t perform tasks but provide comfort, relief, contentment, and social interaction for a variety of patients with specific needs. Therapy animals work with individuals or groups. In order to be effective, measurable goals and a plan are constructed by the therapist along with the animal and its owner.

Zak talks about the difference between a Service Dog and a Therapy Dog

What animals make good therapy pets?

The most common therapy pets are dogs and cats. Equine therapy (use of horses) is also enjoying a healthy presence in this new field. These are not the only ones, however. The main requirement is that the pet is gentle when handled by one or several people. Other pets used include birds, guinea pigs, goldfish, even chickens, and reptiles. As long as the patient is not afraid of the pet and receptive to it, that animal could become a therapy pet.

What is the most common therapy animal?

Dogs are said to be “man’s best friend” and nowhere does that show more than in pet therapy. One of the most commonly used pets is dogs. They have been our faithful companions for centuries and now are also being seen as homeopathic healers.

What is it about dogs that makes them so lovable? For one, dogs, like some other animals, mirror the emotional states of those around them. This is why you come home from a long day feeling a bit melancholy and your favorite poodle companion dutifully lays at your feet or in your lap on the sofa to try and brighten your mood. They sense that something is going on. There have even been examples of dogs saving their owners from sudden medical disasters by alerting others to get help.

Top Ten Therapy Dog Breeds

Here are the top ten breeds of dogs that are suitable as therapy dogs for those in need.

1.       Labrador Retriever – These big mutts are so lovable, even by people who do not consider themselves to be dog lovers. They love to run and play as well as be petted and generally love their owners all day long. Simply petting them or having them lay their head in your lap can bring about feelings of contentment.

2.       German Shepherd – These dogs have long been bred as service dogs even though we are talking about their use in therapy here. They are highly intelligent, protective, and able to be trained for a variety of different purposes.

3.       Greyhound – This dog is sleek, beautiful, and fast. But, he is also a great companion, especially for those who have trouble sleeping. Greyhounds are quiet and will lay down with you and keep you company until you fall asleep.

4.       Beagle – We always knew that Snoopy was the best dog to have around. Beagles are small, active, friendly, and love to cuddle with others.

5.       Rottweiler – This dog looks lethal but they were bred to be guard dogs who subdued their prey without hurting them. They are calm and intelligent.

6.       Saint Bernard – This dog is big and furry and lovable. They are good with kids because they are infinitely patient when kids handle them roughly.

7.       Pomeranian – This small dog doesn’t require a lot of space to move. They are great for elderly folks who want a dog they can pet and who will sit on their lap and enjoy endless cuddling.

8.       Poodle – These dogs are hypo-allergenic so people with allergies don’t have to worry. Poodles are intelligent so they can be trained for a number of tasks.

9.       Pug – He is small and funny looking but a great little guy. They love to please people and are amenable to young and old alike.

10.   French Bulldog – With their short legs and bat-like ears, they are cute and inquisitive. They are non-confrontational animals and perfect lap dogs.

Looking for a dog for a pet therapy program? These ten breeds are up to the task.

I KNOW I didn’t have Australian Shepherds on the list (gasp). They are always “working” and far from calm on an average day. That makes it difficult for them to help calm down others.

Benefits of Pet Therapy

Whatever the pet type, use of an animal in the therapy process has some interesting benefits:

  • Improved focus and balance (depending on the animal and the activity)
  • Physical interaction and contact
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Increased mental stimulation
  • Empathy (pets often mirror the behaviors of their owners)
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Improved problem-solving skills
  • Greater trust and teamwork in therapy

This is just an abbreviated list but you can see where we’re going with this.

Who Can They Help?

People from all walks of life can benefit from pet therapy. These pets are most commonly seen in nursing facilities where they serve as a constant for people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In hospitals, they aid cancer patients, heart patients, and those suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Individuals with autism spectrum disorders as well as developmental disorders may also benefit from the presence of such an animal.

You may not think that pets and hospitals go hand in hand, but they do. The very presence of an animal in the hospital often causes an uproar – but in a good way. Everyone wants to get in on the fun.  

Have you ever been in hospital? It can be a scary place. And, it’s filled with sick people. The environment can also be lonely and isolated with only health professionals coming into your room. For some, hospitals conjure up visions of pain and death. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Pet therapy programs can be found in a number of healthcare facilities. They are designed to assist patients with recovery and treatment. We have heard about pets increasing good mood and decreasing blood pressure. They are sensitive to the moods of their owners and strive to soothe them whenever possible. Pets have been used in therapy for people with pain issues (such as arthritis), behavioral issues, mental health patients, veterans with PTSD, nursing home residents, and more.

Therapy Pets and Mental Health Issues

Those with mental difficulties are often marginalized by society. They are tucked away so no one can see them. Often, people don’t get help because they are ashamed or embarrassed about their condition. Mental illness is a real disease and only treatment and awareness will dispel the stigma and stop the problem.

One avenue of support is through pet therapy. These animals are familiar to nursing facilities, hospitals, and even schools. Why not companionship for those with mental challenges? It can be of great benefit to them. Here are some of the conditions that have been helped by pet therapy.

* Dementia – Elderly people who may not be able to take care of a pet themselves can still have the benefit of them through pet therapy programs. Regular visits from these animals build a relationship. The animal looks forward to the visit as much as the other person. They become a constant to help them remember more, stay socialized and return to normalcy (especially if they are living in a nursing home or assisted living facility).

* PTSD – Some mental issues are a result of traumatic circumstances. In these cases, therapy animals are instrumental in recovery through their patience and unconditional acceptance of people. Caring for the animal is therapeutic in itself. It teaches responsibility, focus, and trust. Animals will stay by your side and comfort you when you need a friend. They are fiercely loyal and protective. Having that support can make the tough road to recovery more bearable.

Just their companionship can provide health benefits such as:

  • ·         Lower cholesterol levels
  • ·         Lower blood pressure (previously mentioned)
  • ·         Increased alertness
  • ·         Increased balance
  • ·         Increased well-being and socialization
  • ·         Less stress

Who wouldn’t benefit from that kind of therapy? People worry about pets in hospitals but measures are carefully taken to ensure that the animals chosen to participate in these therapy programs are immunized, friendly, clean, and well-behaved.

Therapy Pets and Sick People

If you have seen a dog visiting your hospital, it is for good reason. Here are just a few things that they can do for patients:

Face challenges

Pets are a responsibility. Learning to care for them and see them every day can spark a renewed sense of purpose in those who are undergoing chemotherapy or other major procedure. Their bond with the pets gives them a reason to fight on and meet difficult medical challenges with hope and a positive outlook.

Shorter recovery time

Many hospital patients who receive pet therapy are reminded of their own pets left behind at home. The therapy pet is a willing surrogate and can also help their recipients to recover faster or needless care so that they can get back home to their beloved dog or cat. Many patients are secretly worried about who will care for their pets while they are away or if something happens to them.


It can be lonely staying in the hospital. Therapy animals make the stay more interesting and less isolated. Patients who may not get a lot of visitors look forward to their daily dog walk or cuddle time.

Improved family interaction

Other family members benefit from animal visits as well. The presence of a dog affects everyone in the room. They can forget for a moment and enjoy a laugh and a cuddle with their loved one and their doggie friend.

Sickness doesn’t have to be a lonely experience when therapy pets are around.

Therapy Pets and Children

Pets have been shown to promote health benefits in humans. They can increase self-esteem, increase trust and confidence as well as increase endorphin production. In many instances, therapy dogs have specifically been used to help kids.

Pets are fun to have around even when they are supposed to be doing something serious like therapy. Here are ways that kids encounter therapy pets.


Did you know that therapy dogs can help children to read? Those who have trouble with their reading are often afraid to read aloud in front of other classmates. But, they are more than willing to read in front of a four-legged friend. They are part of reading programs that bring dogs in to increase literacy by helping kids to work on their reading skills. Animals are attentive and patient as kids read, and the children learn how to interact with animals at the same time.


Some therapy dogs are used in schools as a part of a campaign to stop bullying. The dogs are used to teach character traits like compassion and fairness to kids in an effort to decrease incidents of bullying. Kids who had animals in the classroom were less likely to be part of disruptive behavior than those without one.

Calm fears

Children who had a visit from a dog or other therapy pet before a dental procedure were calmer. Pets are soothing. For kids who have pets at home, the sight of one in their hospital room or a doctor’s office provides a sense of normalcy and instills trust.


When kids find it hard to talk to adults about issues, they can talk to animals. Because the animal doesn’t recoil or run from them, they develop a trusting bond that leads to them opening up about issues in therapy. Animals want to please people so they are devoted and focused on whomever they are with.

Social interaction – Therapy animals can foster the learning of social skills in kids. Because animals are patient, they can be used to reinforce positive social skills like teamwork, empathy, and responsibility.


Kids can get a bit of fresh air and have some fun at the same time. Running around playing with a therapy dog is exercise although it won’t seem like it.


Therapy animals can draw out children who are on the autism spectrum. These interactions can be used to teach responsibility, physical development, social skills, and focus. Animals can be intuitive and anticipate the needs of those they are serving once the relationship is established. Because animals are patient, children can learn at their own pace. Equine therapy (horses) has also been shown to improve the lives of autistic patients.

Kids and pets are both precious. Bringing them together in therapy can have fantastic results.

If you know someone for whom traditional therapy alone is not working, consider adding a loving pet to the equation.

Just look at how a therapy dog program is working in Texas!

Six Common Questions about Therapy Pets

What are therapy pets and are they safe? This is a question that many may be asking when they first hear about this type of program. They are found in schools, nursing facilities, hospitals, prisons, private homes, and anywhere the love and presence of a pet would provide support. What are your concerns about therapy pets?  

What to Ask When Thinking about Pet Therapy

There are many benefits to using these services. They may have been suggested to you before. Here are common questions and their answers.

1. What happens during pet therapy? 

This depends on the setting. In most cases, the therapist will supervise as the pet and his handler (usually his owner) are introduced to the patient, and parameters of the meet are established. With most animals (not fish of course), there will be contacted through direct care as well as petting and cuddling.

2. What are the risks of pet therapy? 

There are very few risks if any. Facilities screen the pet/handler teams to meet their criteria. When working with big animals like horses, participants wear helmets and other protective gear. Interactions are monitored to make sure that there is no injury to either party.

3. How do you prepare for pet therapy? 

The particulars of the specific program you are participating in will be explained to you at the outset even before you agree to it. The first meeting is a bit apprehensive until the pet and the patient become accustomed to each other.

4. What type of animals are used?

 This depends on the therapeutic needs of the patient. Common animals are dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, birds, and guinea pigs. Some organizations won’t certify what they consider to be “exotic animals.” That includes snakes, lizards, and ferrets.

5. Does this therapy actually help? 

Research is still ongoing, but pets have been used for therapeutic purposes for hundreds of years. People with pets are more likely to live past a medical incident like a heart attack than those without a pet. The calming effects of pets decrease stress and anxiety just by being around them.

6. Where can I find a therapy dog or other pet?

 Local organizations exist in just about every area. You can Google nationally known organizations and look for local chapters in your area. If you are asking for someone in a hospital or nursing facility, speak with the staff to find out if they offer such a program.

Is My Animal Suited to Therapy Work?

If you already have a dog and wonder if it can be of help? Therapy pets perform a very important job. They provide a need for patients with disabilities – whether physical, behavioral, or mental. Adding an animal component to the treatment of certain patients can make a big difference in their care, including the length and the extent of treatment. Are you thinking about volunteering your pet to help others? Here are some things you should know.

Is my dog a therapy pet?

There are a large number of organizations that specialize in therapy animals for people. They are always on the lookout for volunteers and their animals to assist with the cause and help train.

Is My Animal Ready?

When it comes to therapy, many breeds of dog, cat, bird, and others are suitable to interact with people, but that doesn’t mean that your pet is ready. Here are some criteria to consider. 

* Obedience

 Your dog might be okay at home, but when they get around other people, do they bark or snarl? To ensure your dog is ready, consider an obedience course. Make sure that the trainer’s methods comply with the AKC/Canine Good Citizen test. A good training program can take from six to twelve weeks to complete. They should be able to follow your commands when around new people.

* Temperament

How does your pet react around other people? Depending on the location and type of therapy needed by the patient, there may be a lot of petting involved. Kids are often loud and rough until they are taught to handle pets. Is your pet able to deal with crotchety old folks and rambunctious children? A good therapy pet is one that stays calm and gentle in a variety of circumstances.

* Socialization 

Dogs and other animals that are used to being around people are more likely to be friendly and outgoing in a crowd of new faces at a nursing home or a children’s ward in a hospital. They also need to be comfortable and not spooked when around other animals.

* Clean bill of health 

Therapy pets should be free of disease and properly vaccinated so as not to pose a danger to the patient. The center or the organization you will be working with may require proof of their health. Short-haired pets that don’t shed a lot (if at all) are preferable. Some patients may have allergies to animal dander.

Get your printable checklist here:

Pets of all kinds are used in animal assisted therapy. You and your canine, feline or bird could be the next volunteers.

Just think of all the good you could do!

Check out these other great tips for dogs:

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