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Therapy Dogs and Animal Assisted Therapy

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Pet Therapy Dog in Hospital Photo by William B. Plowman/Getty Images
Animal assisted therapy (AAT) is the use of certified therapy animals as a part of a therapeutic plan. The Delta Society describes animal assisted therapy as a "significant part of treatment for many people who are physically, socially, emotionally or cognitively challenged." Those in hospitals or nursing homes often benefit from AAT, especially children and the elderly. While animals such as horses and cats can make excellent therapy animals, dogs are by far the most common type. Perhaps this is because of the unique bond that canines and humans share. Therapy dogs truly make a difference in the lives of the people they meet.

History of Animal-Assisted Therapy:

Animals, especially dogs, have been assisting humans since the beginning of recorded history. They have helped us work and provided us with companionship and lifted our spirits. However, it was not until the 20th century that animals were officially recognized for their therapeutic abilities.

In 1976, Elaine Smith founded Therapy Dogs International, the first registry for therapy dogs in the US. One year later, the Delta Foundation (later named Delta Society) was formed to research the effects that animals have on people’s lives. Today, these groups, along with many others, help provide therapy animals to people in need of AAT.

How Therapy Dogs Make a Difference:

Animal assisted therapy teams consist of a certified therapy animal and a trained handler. Therapy teams visit hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living centers, children's homes and other similar facilities to help lift spirits and facilitate recovery. Therapy dogs visit with the sick and elderly, sometime simply sitting by the person's side and patiently being petted. AAT patients may walk therapy dogs, play with them, feed them or groom them. Some therapy dogs are trained to sit quietly and attentively while children read to them. Many therapy dogs have their own disabilities or limitations that serve as inspiration to humans with disabilities.

Qualities of an Ideal Therapy Dog:

Dogs of any breed, size or age may be eligible to become therapy dogs. However, not all dogs are cut out for the job. Therapy dog candidates must possess certain traits in order to qualify. Temperament is by far the most important factor. Before even entering a training program, the therapy dog candidate must be friendly and non-aggressive. The dog must get along remarkably well with children, men, women and other animals. The dog should also be confident, patient, calm, gentle and receptive to training. Socialization is essential for all puppies, but it is especially important for a dog to be considered for a therapy program.

Becoming A Therapy Team:

Therapy dogs work with a dedicated handler. This is often, but not always, the dog's owner. If you want to become a therapy team with your dog, you must both complete thorough training. A great way to begin is to participate in the AKC Canine Good Citizen Program (CGC). This certification shows that your dog is socialized, friendly and has adequate basic training. In fact, CGC certification is a prerequisite for many therapy dog programs.

The next step is to contact an official animal assisted therapy organization (like Delta Society or TDI). Each group has its own set of standards and required courses before a dog and handler can become a registered therapy team. Therapy dogs must also meet specific health requirements. Once the dog and handler complete all requirements, they must go through a final evaluation, or series of evaluations, to become official.

Once you and your dog become a therapy team, you can begin visiting facilities. Visits and schedules are typically arranged through your organization. Once you get out there and start making a difference, you'll be glad you took the time to go through the process. Being an animal assisted therapy team can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.

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