It is long and widely felt that dogs provide many benefits to living in general. These are pets who offer companionship, warmth, and affection, and people traditionally value and love their dogs. They become “parts of the family” and also help teach children responsibility. All of these qualities, however, go to another and more specific role dogs play. For those facing physical and/or emotional challenges, therapy dogs are trained to assist in more direct ways, and help their owners to move through life with more confidence. These are animals greatly useful to those handicapped by any number of circumstances, from the combat veteran having difficulty in adjusting to civilian life and/or dealing with a physical disability, to the elderly person withdrawn from the outside world. As the following will reveal, therapy dogs provide an invaluable service to many, as they help their owners in developing emotional, physical, and social skills and growth.
Dogs and Emotional Support
Before the ability of these dogs to offer emotional support may be understood, it is first necessary to know that, generally speaking, this is what the therapy dog is trained to provide. These are animals selected and trained based on personality; they must be receptive and affectionate to humans, and the training goes to ensuring that the dogs consistently behave in these ways. Those in physical or emotional distress will often act unpredictably, so it is all the more important that the dog can be relied upon to be gentle. This is further established by the therapy dog as controlled by the handler, with whom it has a strong relationship (Marcus 7). As such dogs are then brought into care facilities, what occurs is a natural and positive change in the emotional states of those needing the care. These are animals who essentially live to express affection to humans, and this inevitably has a transformative effect on how people feel. It is noted, and not unexpectedly, that many in hospital settings suffer from depression. Physical problems, isolation, and other factors generate feelings of hopelessness and loneliness. The dogs enter, however, and the depression is eased; facility staff members frequently report that morale is greatly improved after a therapy dog visit (Davis 9). Essentially, gentle and affectionate dogs universally make people feel better, and therapy dogs are highly effective in improving poor emotional states.
Therapy dogs, while trained and certified, are not actual service animals. That is, they are not trained to specifically assist the physically handicapped (Davis 9). At the same time, it is widely noted that the dogs improve the physical health of those who are ill. To begin with, there is a natural relationship between therapy dogs and those to whom they are assigned, in that the desire to care for the dog generates exercise that is good for both. The person less inclined to walk, for example, will make that effort because they want to give the dog exercise (Marcus 33).
Then, the ordinary actions involved in simply interacting with a dog offer important advantages to those with physical issues. Petting the dog, using the leash, and teaching the dog to play tricks, as in fetching a ball, can all work to enhance the physical abilities of anyone suffering from a limitation (Davis 19). In short, the mere presence of the dogs encourages activity, which is helpful to even the most severely challenged.
Finally, as therapy dogs elevate the emotions, so too do they help people who have issues with social interaction. The basic affection between dog and person easily translates to a greater openness in the person, just as the dog itself provides an agreeable topic of conversation. For example, it is noted that soldiers returned home from Afghanistan, and dealing with adjustment issues, become more social when therapy dogs are introduced to them. The change in the emotional state leads to interaction: “They open up and start to talk about their dogs, past, present and future” (Swank). Again, the formula is basic; when people feel better about themselves, they will be more inclined to interact with others, which in turn promotes emotional health.
It is unreasonable to suggest that therapy dogs provide perfect levels of care for those in physical or emotional distress. There is no escaping the reality that even the most affectionate dog can only be of help when the person is able to react to it. At the same time, however, it is true as well that most people do respond to the love offered by these animals, and that this simple process enables wellness. Ultimately, therapy dogs offer an invaluable service to many individuals in pain, as they help in promoting emotional, physical, and social skills and growth.
- Davis, Kathy D. Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others, 2nd Ed. Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise Publishing, 2002.
- Marcus, Dawn. The Power of Wagging Tails: A Doctor’s Guide to Dog Therapy and Healing. New York, NY: Demos Health, 2011.
- Swank, Jill. “Therapy dogs help demobilize soldiers.” U.S. Army. 10 Aug. 2011. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.