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All About Therapy Dogs

Posted December 04, 2013 in A Vet's Life

Hand petting a therapy dog /><p><em><a href=Dr. Ruth MacPete dedicates this blog to therapy dogs. For more from Dr. MacPete, find her on Facebook or at!

Animals have an incredible capacity to love and to heal. As pet parents, we know this firsthand. Whenever we are feeling down, our pets seem to instinctively know how to make us feel better. Science has only recently been able to provide the biological basis for these observations. Studies have found that petting a dog lowers blood pressure, causes the release of oxytocin, a hormone involved in emotional bond formation, and decreases levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress and anxiety.

Today I wanted to dedicate my blog to therapy dogs, those special dogs trained to bring love and comfort to people in hospitals, nursing homes, retirement homes, hospices, and disaster areas. Therapy dogs can be of any size or breed as long as they have a sound temperament. They need to be friendly, gentle, calm, and at ease in various settings. Therapy dogs must love being around people; after all, their job is to let strangers pet them, hug them, and even kiss them.

The use of therapy dogs is attributed to Elaine Smith, who founded Therapy Dogs International (TDI) in 1976 to train dogs to visit hospitals and other institutions. Her inspiration came from seeing how well patients responded to visits by a chaplain and his Golden retriever. She founded TDI to bring dogs and their innate ability to heal to patients and people in need. Since then, the use of therapy dogs has become more widely accepted. 

Do you have a friendly pooch you think would make the perfect therapy dog? Are you wondering what it takes to be a therapy dog, or how you can sign your dog up? Besides liking people and having a suitable temperament, therapy dogs must meet stringent requirements in order to be a registered therapy dog.

Obedience test
Therapy dogs work in a variety of environments, including unfamiliar ones, and they are expected to remain calm and follow instructions at all times. In order to ensure that a therapy dog is well behaved, they must pass the AKC Good Citizen test (or its equivalent). Some institutions also test them to prove that they are not afraid of sudden noises or wheelchairs, walkers, and people with canes.

Health check
Therapy dogs need to be in good health. They need to

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Ruth has more than 15 years of experience in the veterinary industry as a companion animal veterinarian in private practice. Along with being a writer and media personality, she is also a founding member of IDEXX’s Pet Health Network team.

Opinions expressed are those of the writer:

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author's and do not necessarily represent the beliefs, policies or positions of all veterinarians, Pet Health Network, IDEXX Laboratories, Inc. or its affiliates and partner companies.