Guest Blog: The Power of the Therapy Dog by Chris Burn

Therapy dogs have been successfully employed for some time to support diverse populations, including children with developmental disorders, people with mental health conditions, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and elderly folk in nursing homes. They offer a unique and valuable form of assistance and comfort which can be suited to the specific needs of each group.

Pets and people can connect in a way that people and people sometimes can’t. All Animal Share DNA. All animals have things in common. Humans share 82% DNA with dogs (with cats it’s 90%) but dogs have learned to interact with us perhaps better than any other animal. So, it’s not surprising that dogs are man’s best friends. Dogs Are Social Dogs (unlike cats) are naturally social creatures, and therapy dogs facilitate social interaction among individuals. They serve as catalysts for engagement, encouraging communication and reducing feelings of isolation. This can be particularly beneficial for people struggling with social anxiety or those in environments where forming connections can be challenging.

A Case in Point Consider the case of Edwin, a widowed pensioner with early-stage dementia. He had to move into residential care three years ago and although being well looked after, he was not thriving. The days were monotonous, and his family were unable to visit often. Life seemed endless and meaningless and Edwin became withdrawn and depressed. But when a therapy dog visited, Edwin gave a cry of pleasure when it laid its head on his knee and he felt the warm, velvety ears. None of Edwin’s care workers, kind though they might be, had been given such a response. Edwin interacted and spoke with the dog in ways that the staff had never seen him do before.

Happiness Is a Therapy Dog

Therapy dogs in particular have a natural ability to form deep emotional connections with humans. Their non-judgmental and unconditional love creates a safe and comforting space, allowing people who are emotionally blocked (or emotionally fragile) to open up and express their emotions freely. Their comforting and joyful presence can help divert attention from pain, distress, or negative thoughts and their playful nature and ability to perform tricks or follow commands can serve as a source of entertainment and diversion, providing companionship and happiness.

Physical Benefits of Therapy Dogs

Interacting with therapy dogs has been shown to reduce stress levels in humans. The presence of a dog can help lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, and release endorphins, which promote feelings of relaxation and well-being.

Mood Enhancement

Therapy dogs have a remarkable ability to uplift people’s moods. The simple act of petting or interacting with a dog releases serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin— brain chemicals associated with happiness and bonding. This can significantly improve the overall mood and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The Special Role of Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are different from service dogs (such as guide dogs for the blind) or emotional support animals, as they receive specialized training to work in therapeutic settings and are usually handled by trained volunteers or professionals. The combination of their inherent qualities and the training they receive contributes to their exceptional effectiveness in providing emotional support and promoting overall well-being.

Could Your Pet Become a Therapy Dog?

Not every pet is suitable to provide therapy – they must be calm, friendly, well-mannered and enjoy meeting all kinds of people in a relaxed manner. If you and or your pet wish to know more and perhaps like to volunteer, there are a number of charities that can advise you and provide training, testing and certification. Perhaps the best known is Pets As Therapy but there are others such as Therapy Dogs Nationwide and Canine Concern

Therapy Dogs for Re-connection

Many people these days feel isolated, disconnected and ignored. They long for interaction – to share experiences, to be listened to or just simply for a friendly touch. Dogs can do that for anyone and therapy dogs help those who need it most – and they ask for nothing in return. What an example!