Really, A Dog With a Couch? – Do Therapy Dogs Really Do Therapy?

 Photo credit: Shutterstock

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Do Therapy Dogs really do therapy?

Those of us at the other end of the Therapy Dog leash need to be able to answer this question.

And it has several answers.

Confused? We are not surprised.

Today, it’s not unusual to encounter friendly therapy dogs and their human handlers walking the corridors of hospitals and health care facilities. The physical and psychological benefits of the human-animal bond are increasingly recognized as helpful to patients, families and hospital staff.

My retired therapy dog Junior and I have been on both the giving and receiving end of the comfort and healing of a therapy animal visit in a hospital. We believe in the benefit of animal assisted activity for comfort and healing.

But lately, I have been thinking that Therapy Dogs may have a name problem.

And names have power. Names provide us identity, clarity of roles, scope, and functions.

I keep asking myself,”Is what therapy dogs do really”therapy?”

What they do seems therapeutic and beneficial, but does it meet the definition of therapy?

The term “Therapy Dog”or”Therapy Animal” is used today as an overall generic description for trained dogs or animals that do a broad range of animal assisted activity or interventions. No universally accepted definition exists for each of these types of animal assisted interventions and not all of these are universally accepted as therapy.

My understanding of therapy is that it is a treatment that includes the setting of therapeutic goals, in a controlled process which uses techniques specific to the particular type of therapy being provided and subject to a continuous evaluation of its outcomes. Therapy is provided under the supervision of a professional who is  appropriately credentialed to provide it.

As animal assisted intervention programs grow in popularity, confusion about its scope and roles is a concern. The public, animal handlers and service providers often define a broad  range of animal assisted interventions and activity with the umbrella term “animal assisted therapy“. This  group  of interventions may include  visiting, animal assisted education, animal assisted activity and animal assisted therapy.

The lack of clarity and precision in naming animal assisted interventions creates difficulty in understanding and practicing within the appropriate scope for each of these activities and interventions. That confusion in turn results in difficulty in identifying appropriate target outcomes for each of these related, but different interventions.

The need for appropriate definitions of roles and scope presents an important consideration in planning,implementing and evaluating animal assisted programs in health care facilities. The differences in the scope and goals of each of each type of intervention impact program development and implementation, client expectations and measurement  of program success.

Therapy animals work in different ways and in different roles. Not all of these are what I would define as therapy.

Animal Assisted Activity(AAA) involves mostly social visits with an animal. Animal assisted therapy strategically incorporates human animal interactions into a formal therapeutic process directed by a credentialed practitioner functioning within their scope of practice (Chandler,2012)

Within the same health care facility, multiple models of an animal assisted program may be used and can include the following: Animal Assisted Visiting, Animal assisted Activity and Animal Assisted Therapy or a combination of these.

So to answer my question that began this post, let’s start a discussion and  take a look at some of the differences. We may see what we need to further clarify.

(As I describe these terms, keep mind that sources may differ on the exact definition and description of each category.)

Animal Assisted Activity

Animal assisted activity is less structured and is usually delivered by the animal handler with their animal partner. It is social and its benefits are increased interactions, comfort and communication. The interactions are less formal than animal assisted therapy and, while beneficial, are not integrated into a treatment plan or learning plan and are not delivered by a health professional. Animal Assisted Activity may be goal directed in some cases, and some integration into the plan of care and documentation may occur in the activity, but it does not rise to a formal element in the treatment plan of the individual patient.

Social events, visiting  patients and families and reading with students in an informal come- and- go setting such as a library are examples. Animal Assisted Activity may involve some goal directed activity. Animal Assisted Activity provides opportunities for motivational, educational and/or recreational benefits to enhance a person’s quality of life. Animal Assisted Activity may be delivered by a professional, para-professional or volunteer who demonstrates knowledge about animals and human populations and is facilitated by the trained, registered animal handler or a member of health care facility’s staff with the handler.

Animal Assisted Therapy

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal is incorporated as an integral part of the clinical healthcare treatment process. It is delivered or directed by a professional health or human service provider who demonstrates skill and expertise regarding the clinical applications of human-animal interactions and who is providing care under their scope of practice.

Animal Assisted Therapy is an integrated part of a treatment process. A credentialed therapist, working within the scope of their professional expertise and standards, sets goals, guides the interaction between animal and patient, and measures progress.  Animal Assisted therapy is a practice modality and not unique profession (Chandler 2012). The professional guiding the intervention must have the  training and credentials for their profession. The animal and animal handler are present to facilitate the work of  the health care professional. The health care professional is the therapist. The dog and handler are not  therapists.

Therapy Dogs Vs Service Dog

Adding to the confusion of terms and roles is the important distinction between Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs. A Therapy Dog is not a Service Dog.

A  Service dog is a working dog that assists a person with a disability to perform the activities of daily living. A service animal is a dog that has been trained to do work or perform tasks of daily living. Service dogs are defined by the American with Disabilities Act and are provided certain access rights. A service dog is not a therapy dog and is not a companion animal. Service dogs  function in their role  24 hours a day  and serve one person. Examples of the works of service dogs are guiding people who are blind or reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications.

As we continue to work to clarify and define roles of therapy animals there are core questions to consider in planning Animal Assisted Activity and Interventions in health care facilities in order to lend clarity for those who  deliver and receive the benefits of animals.

Service providers and handler need to ask:

What do we want to accomplish in our animal assisted intervention programs? How will we know when we accomplish it?

Is our program Animal Assisted Visiting, Animal Assisted Activity or Animal Assisted Therapy and what are the appropriate and relevant standards , procedures and policies we need to develop and implement?

Names are how we think about ourselves and communicate who we are to others. Are our therapy animals friendly visitors, entertainers, or facilitators of therapeutic and educational process? The answers to these questions are fundamental to program planning, management and outcome evaluation. The answers drive program requirements and policies.

I hope the wise, caring and courageous community of practice in Animal Assisted Activity will continue to lead and guide this emerging and maturing applied science by evidence and study. We need  thoughtful dialogue and to continue to raise these questions so we  move forward together to clearly articulate roles and boundaries and behavior.

In the meantime, let’s hope the rest of us keep visiting, talking as colleagues and  keep learning together from our animal and human teachers as we keep bring humans and animal together in the effort to improve health and touch lives.

Sources and For Further Discussion and Information About Therapy Animals and the Human Animal Bond

Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling and Psychotherapy By Cynthia K Chandler, 2012

Animal Assisted Psychotherapy: Theory Issues and Practice By  Nancy Parish Plass, 2015

Pet Partners Human Animal Bond Resource Center (Bibliography  of Articles and Books)

Pet Partners
Animal Assisted Intervention International
Human Animal Bond Research Initiative

9 thoughts on “Really, A Dog With a Couch? – Do Therapy Dogs Really Do Therapy?

  1. There definitely is a lot of confusion around terms & definitions. In my mind, Therapy Dog (cat or other animal) means one who comforts and soothes the soul of a person in need through purely social visits. That’s how I explain the work my Therapy Dog and I do with kids, seniors, etc. When you throw the term “assisted” into any kind of therapy to me that means a qualified medical professional of some kind is involved, sets goals for assisted activity that helps a person physically or emotionally, and tracks their specific progress. I’ve seen many of the above terms used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be. Many people are still confused about the difference between a “therapy” animal and a “service” animal as well. I usually say something like “service animals are protected by the American’s With Disabilities Act and are in place to help one specific person with daily activities and have access to all public places by law. Therapy Dogs are not protected by this act” I use a blind person or someone w/ PTSD as examples of a service animal.

  2. There is a lot of confusion about therapy dogs for sure; and unfortunately all of those news stories about “fake service dogs” seem to be confusing the matter even further. This is a wonderful guide for anyone struggling with trying to keep the terminology clear (like myself). I am so happy to see more therapy dog programs (of all kinds) in place and it’s always been apparent that it’s a wonderful service to those it reaches.

  3. Very good points. There are many “names” and designations like this that have one meaning for professionals and another for the general public, and that can be confusing.

  4. I would agree that it is frustrating when people mix up the terms, for instance calling a service dog a therapy dog.

  5. I love it when animals are used to help humans get better. It just proves what a strong bond there is between us and the animals. They bring something out in us that other humans just can’t bring out.

  6. I’ve had so many questions about therapy dogs lately, thanks for answering them! I think many of us feel as though our dogs provide “therapy” for us, but realistically, that’s just not the correct term, is it?

    In New York City, especially, I’ve heard that a lot of owners are illegally touting their pets as therapy animals for special treatment in stores – it’s so important that these people don’t dilute the real duties of the canines that provide real therapy. I wish I could bring my dog with me more places, but it’s obvious that it just can’t be that way.

  7. My veterinarian has a cat, Ranger, who lives at the clinic who has been trained (through ) as a therapy cat. Last summer, when the vet’s father was dying, Ranger went and sat with the father, the vet, and the vet’s sister who had come in from a different part of the state. After he passed, Ranger stayed with the vet’s sister until she returned home.

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