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February 2024

How to Train a Therapy Dog


Sit, stay, fetch – these are all mainstays of the dog training journey but they’re far from the limit of what a dog is capable of. In consultation with Carolyn Moorshead from Animal Therapies Limited, we’re shining a light on the awesome work therapy dogs do to return agency and dignity to people living with various health conditions including PTSD, anxiety, depression, and mobility inhibitors.

There’s a reason they’re referred to colloquially as ‘man’s best friend’ – dogs provide an enormous amount of comfort and support. Their unjudgmental natures and unconditional love make them great companions for people in all walks of life – but dogs take on a new significance when they step into the role of an assistance or therapy animal. Whether that’s by offering practical support (like fetching objects for their owners) or emotional support (through unjudgmental, devoted companionship), these dogs improve the lives of their owners exponentially.

What is a Therapy Dog?

A therapy dog is specially trained to work alongside a health professional to offer support to people dealing with physiological or psychological challenges. The Petstock Foundation has partnered with several wonderful charity organisations who provide therapy animal services and assistance animals to those in need – including Guide Dogs Australia, Animal Therapies Limited, Assistance Dogs Australia and Smart Pups. Read up on the training therapy dogs undergo and the benefits they provide to many people.

The Benefits of Therapy Dogs

1. Ease Stress and Anxiety

Dogs make us happy – quite literally. The presence of a therapy dog can trigger the release of oxytocin and dopamine, neurotransmitters associated with happiness and relaxation. This can significantly reduce stress and anxiety levels.

2. Improves Mood

Interacting with therapy dogs often leads to an increase in serotonin, the "happy" hormone. This boost in mood can be especially beneficial for individuals dealing with depression or struggling with the current circumstances.

3. Enhances Socialisation

Therapy dogs encourage social interaction and communication, making them an asset in settings like schools and health clinics, where they help children learn tools to improve their overall wellbeing.

4. Improved Adherence to a Health Treatment Plan

While room-based treatment options exist for many, low rates of treatment adherence, tolerability and acceptability hinder clinician’s ability to reduce the devastating impacts mental health conditions have on individuals. Individuals with complex mental health profiles, such as those who have experienced traumatic events, find traditional talking therapy intolerable or distressing. Animal-Assisted Therapy has grown out of this need for improved treatment acceptability and as a viable alternative to traditional room-based help.

5. Boosts Confidence

The non-judgmental and accepting nature of therapy dogs can boost self-esteem and confidence, particularly in people with low self-confidence.

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Taken by Good Dog Animal-Assisted Therapy Service

Where Therapy Dogs Work

Therapy dogs can be found in a variety of settings, including:

Hospitals and Healthcare Facilities: They can provide comfort to patients undergoing medical treatments or dealing with illnesses.
Schools and Universities: Therapy dogs can offer stress relief during exams or help children with learning disabilities.
Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities: They can bring joy to the elderly residents and alleviate feelings of loneliness.
Disaster and Crisis Situations: Therapy dogs can offer emotional support to survivors and first responders.

Therapy Dogs in Action

Hannah Taino Spick is a Canine-Assisted Social Worker who works alongside her therapy dogs helping both adults and children achieve better health outcomes.

How Therapy Dogs Are Trained

Training a therapy dog is an incredibly involved and costly process. Training involves several steps to ensure that the dog is well-behaved, calm, and capable of working alongside their handler. Dogs are also assessed to ensure they don’t show signs of stress when asked to perform this work. Here's a general outline of the process to train a therapy dog:

Select the Right Dog: Not all dogs are suitable for therapy work. Dogs are chosen for their friendly and calm temperaments and suitability of the client groups they will be working with.

Basic Behaviour Training: Before starting therapy training, the dog should have a strong foundation in basic behavioural cues such as sit, stay, down, come, and leave it. This establishes a good framework and ensures safety during therapy sessions.

Socialisation: Dogs will be introduced to various people, places, and situations to build their confidence and help them remain calm in different environments. It’s important they’re exposed to children, adults, wheelchairs, crutches, medical equipment, and other common scenarios they might encounter during therapy work.

Advanced Training: Dogs will be trained to perform more advanced tasks like "visit" (approaching and interacting with people), "lap" (sitting on a person's lap), "heel" (walking calmly on a leash), and "off" (getting off furniture or laps). These cues are crucial for interactions during therapy sessions.

Desensitisation: Dogs will be exposed to various sensory stimuli they might encounter in therapy settings (such as loud noises and sudden movements). This helps them remain composed and unfazed during unexpected situations.

Distraction Training: Dogs are taught to remain focused, even in distracting environments. This is essential for maintaining a therapeutic atmosphere during sessions.

Certification and Evaluation: Dogs should be assessed as suitable by organisations who agree to abide by the Animal-Assisted Services Sector Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct.

Continued Education: Therapy dogs and their handlers are always learning! Even after certification, dogs and their handlers can continue to attend training sessions, workshops and conferences to enhance their skills and stay up to date with best practices in therapy dog work.

Hot Tip

While this a general guide to the training undergone by therapy dogs, individual organisatons may have slightly different processes. However, this training must be undertaken by accredited professionals to ensure the wellbeing and safety of all involved.

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Photo taken by Hannah Taino-Spick from Good Dog Animal-Assisted Therapy Services

This includes supporting young readers with low literacy to be able to improve and build their confidence in reading aloud through community literacy program; helping high school and university students unwind and relax without the help of other substances, especially during stressful periods; creating tactile connections for older people living with dementia, or older people living in aged care; promoting a safe space for those living with a mental illness to speak out loud, be heard, and to engage with the dogs and others around them; encouraging veterans, first responders and military personnel to decompress after highly stressful events like deployment, counselling, or a triggering scenario.

FAQs about Therapy Dogs

Can any dog be a therapy dog?

Not every dog is suitable for therapy work. Dogs with a calm demeanour, friendly attitude, and proper training who enjoy the work are better candidates. These dogs will then undergo formal training with accredited organsiations.

What is the difference between a therapy dog and an assistance dog?

A therapy dog is a dog that has been trained to offer emotional or psychological support and works in tandem with a qualified health professional. An assistance dog helps people with disabilities.

How do therapy dogs benefit patients in hospitals?

Therapy dogs can provide emotional support, reduce anxiety, and even contribute to pain relief in hospital patients.

Can therapy dogs help children with autism?

Yes, therapy dogs can have a positive impact on children with autism by helping them improve their social skills and communication.

Do therapy dogs need special certification?

While not always mandatory, in most cases therapy dogs need to acquire certification from recognised organisations, have insurance cover and ensure their suitability for the clinical population they will be working with.