Dogs can be more than just a child’s best friend. Therapy dogs and their handlers can help bring comfort and reduce anxiety in times of stress. 

What Is a Therapy Dog?

Therapy dogs are not the same as assistance dogs or emotional support dogs. Each performs specific functions according to Assistance Dogs International.

An assistance dog is covered under the American Disability Act (ADA). These dogs can go into public places where other types of dogs aren’t allowed. Assistance dogs are specially trained to perform tasks that help a person with a disability. A dog trained to help a blind person stay safe while walking is an example of an assistance dog.

An emotional support dog is a companion to one person for the purpose of providing comfort or reducing anxiety. People who have mental health or emotional challenges get a prescription from their mental health provider for an emotional support dog. This prescription allows the person’s emotional support dog access to certain public places, such as airplanes.

A therapy dog typically works as a team with a handler and visits different people. Therapy dogs and their handlers are trained and certified to go into specific settings, such as hospitals and nursing homes. Research has shown that therapy dogs can help reduce pain, stress and anxiety as well as promote well-being.


Pet Therapy and Mental Health

Pet therapy can be used as a tool during counseling and play therapy sessions. Children who suffer from trauma, abuse or emotional challenges sometimes have trouble engaging with a therapist. The presence of a therapy dog can help motivate the patient to participate in the session. The therapy dog is a neutral topic for conversation, which can help foster a connection between the patient and the therapist. Texas State University offers a certification program in animal-assisted counseling and play therapy for graduate students and mental health providers.

“Research has shown that therapy dogs can help reduce pain, stress and anxiety as well as promote well-being.”

Patients at mental health facilities also benefit from therapy dogs. Therapy dogs and their handlers from Divine Canines visit Austin State Hospital and Austin State Supported Living Center. These visits give residents an opportunity to experience positive social interactions.


Pet Therapy on Campus

Pet therapy is used with college students to reduce stress and anxiety. A recent study compared the effect of dog therapy versus stress management workshops for college students who were struggling academically. Students who had the most exposure to dog therapy showed significant improvement in skills needed for successful academic performance. Students who had shorter periods of pet therapy in addition to stress management workshops showed no improvement. Researchers think that the stress management workshops increased students’ stress and anxiety levels. When interacting with the dogs, students felt calmer and more relaxed due to the social support and interaction. In fact, the pet therapy helped the students more than the knowledge presented in the stress management workshops. These findings can be used to design future pet therapy programs for at-risk students.


Pet Therapy in the Hospital

Pet therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety in hospitalized children as well. In a recent study, children who were visited by a therapy dog and handler had a significantly greater decrease in anxiety compared to the control group. Their parents reported a high level of satisfaction with the pet therapy program.

Therapy dogs can do more than just bring comfort to young patients. They can help with medical goals, such as motivating a child to get out of bed. When children are frightened about bloodwork or imaging procedures, a dog’s presence can help bring calm.

Three new highly trained medical dogs are joining the team at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin. Their handlers will be Certified Child Life Specialist employees. These dogs will work 40 hours a week and provide more support than local pet therapy dogs, who usually only visit a few times a month.


Pet Therapy Reading Programs

Many pet therapy organizations sponsor reading programs in schools and libraries, as well as remotely. Children who want to read aloud to their classmates find it easier to read to a therapy dog. Any child who wants to improve their reading skills can schedule a free one-on-one online tutoring session with the Bow Wow reading dogs and handlers at Another reading program, Barking Book Buddies, is provided by Divine Canines.

Dog therapy organizations in the Austin area that are recognized by the American Kennel Club are the Dog Alliance, Divine Canines and Therapy Pet Pals of Texas. Visit their websites to find out how to volunteer or how to get your dog trained as a therapy dog if you think he might have the right temperament to help others.


Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer based in Austin.

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