What is a Therapy Dog? 10 Ways They Improve Our Wellbeing
If you are reading this article, chances are you like animals, correct?
If you not only like animals, and dogs specifically, you might also have a pet yourself or have grown up around pets. If so, you also probably know that pets have some skills that allow them to provide us with an immense amount of support, love, and above all - acceptance. And, if you’re following our content here at Antiloneliness, you might recognize these topics as part of therapy as well. Well, you’re not the only one.
What is a Therapy Dog?
Dogs have been man's best friend for a really long time and working alongside humans for centuries has allowed them to fine tune their understanding and communication with us. Some dogs even develop an extraordinary amount of empathy that even well-trained psychologists are struggling to match (meet Teddy). Therapists around the world have recognized these skills and are employing more and more dogs to help with therapy.
Service Dogs vs. Therapy Dogs
Before we dive in, let’s get some terminology straight. I should mention that a lot of uses of animals in therapy are not (yet) protected terms in many countries so this might differ considerably wherever you are. In general though, there are 3 broad categories:
What Do Therapy Dogs Do? Explaining the Job
What might this therapy teamwork look like for a dog? There are many possible options ranging from visiting a school or a nursing home once a week to going to work every day with their owner who might be a physiotherapist - or a psychologist.
Since they are not trained to carry out specific tasks, a therapy dog's job first and foremost entails being friendly and affectionate. Some therapists may teach their dogs certain behaviours that can further aid the therapeutic process. One example of that could be grounding exercises where the dog simply lies down in a person’s lap so they can pet them. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system and thus creates a feeling of calmness which makes it easier to talk about difficult subjects such as traumatic events.
Therapy dogs can be deployed when working with a great variety of psychological conditions including (but not limited to) depression, anxiety, trauma, autism, ADHD and dementia.
10 Proven Benefits of Therapy Dogs
How exactly therapy dogs benefit humans is getting more and more attention in the scientific literature as well. Here are some benefits you might find interesting:
1. Increased levels of oxytocin (a hormone that has been found to enhance bonding, intimacy as well as lowering stress and improve adaptation to highly emotional situations)
2. Decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol
3. Reduced perception of pain
4. Improved social behaviour, including verbal communication and eye contact
5. Increased morale and motivation (for example when dogs are deployed in the workplace)
6. Increased self confidence and sense of self-efficacy
7. Reduced feelings of depression and fatigue
8. Reduced mental confusion
9. Reduced muscle tension
10. Lowered blood pressure (regular sessions can have similar effects to eliminating sodium or alcohol from one’s diet)
Can my Dog Become a Therapy Dog?
In principle, any dog can become a therapy dog as long as they match certain criteria in terms of their personality such as being friendly, affectionate and calm. There are no restrictions on what kind of breed it has to be and with the right kind of training, you might very well be able to teach your dog to provide support and comfort not just to you but others as well. As someone who is currently training their own dog to become a therapy dog, I can tell you that the training comes with ups and downs but is very well worth it at the end of the day - much like therapy. Just imagine the opportunities when you combine the two.
Written by Johanna Perschl, Intern Psychologist at AntiLoneliness
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