The Doggie Will See You Now: Understanding Therapy Dogs and Animal-Assisted Therapy

The Doggie Will See You Now: Understanding Therapy Dogs and Animal-Assisted Therapy

As awareness of the need for quality mental health services is growing, some providers are turning to alternative methods beyond traditional talk therapy. While sitting down with a professional and processing emotions can certainly be helpful, some patients may want something a little different. For example, some patients may prefer hands-on mental health care, such as that provided via art therapy or music therapy. Another option that is becoming more common is animal-assisted therapy. Learn what this method entails below. 

What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Before diving into the benefits of animal-assisted therapy, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of what this method involves. In most cases, animal-assisted therapy is not a stand-alone method; instead, it is intended to be an add-on to other services, like psychotherapy or supportive counseling. 


In most cases, animal-assisted therapy utilizes dogs who have been trained to be especially calm and obedient in order to provide a therapeutic presence for patients experiencing a range of medical or mental health conditions. Before a dog can participate in animal-assisted therapy, the dog and its owner must undergo training. Owners of therapy dogs are generally referred to as “handlers.” 


Once a dog and his or her owner have completed training and certification, they can begin visiting with patients. A dog may visit a patient for 10 to 15 minutes to allow the patient to pet and interact with it, which is believed to confer a therapeutic benefit. 

The Benefits of Therapy Dogs

If you’re interested in learning more about animal-assisted therapy, you’re probably wondering if this modality is effective. Fortunately, researchers have conducted numerous studies on the benefits of animal-assisted therapy, and the results have been positive.


Here are some key benefits {see note}


  • Reduction in makers associated with cardiovascular stress
  • Improved immune system functioning
  • Decreases in fatigue and stress level
  • Improvement in mood disturbance
  • Reduction in symptoms of pain


Based upon the findings of this research, therapy dogs are beneficial for both physical and mental wellbeing, and they can be helpful for numerous health-related conditions. In the world of mental health, animal-assisted therapy has recently received attention for its potential benefits for patients living with symptoms of trauma.


One recent report analyzed the results of eight different studies that evaluated the effects of animal-assisted psychotherapy. Results showed that this modality had significant beneficial effects for patients with trauma, suggesting that therapy dogs may be helpful for patients with conditions like PTSD. 


Another research report that assessed the benefits of animal-assisted therapy using a variety of animals (dogs, cows, dolphins, birds, and rabbits) found that this modality can be beneficial for treating depression, schizophrenia, and drug and alcohol addiction. For those who enjoy animals, therapy dogs can be added to the treatment program for a variety of mental health disorders. 

Understanding the Terminology

There is solid evidence demonstrating that therapy dogs are beneficial as an add-on treatment for patients with mental health conditions, but sometimes, people confuse therapy dogs with closely-related terms, such as service dogs and emotional support dogs. 


While each of these types of dogs can be beneficial, it’s important to understand that there are differences among them. Here is a straightforward explanation of each term:

  • Therapy Dogs: As indicated herein, therapy dogs are trained to be calm and obedient in order to provide a therapeutic benefit to patients living with a number of physical and mental health conditions. Their handlers, who are also trained, take therapy dogs to a variety of settings to support patients. A therapy dog may work with numerous different people. 


  • Service Dogs: Service dogs are specially trained to meet the needs of a person with a disability. For instance, a service dog may be trained to guide a person who is blind, or they may be trained to recognize seizures when working for a person with epilepsy. Service dogs are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which means that service dogs are permitted to be in public places with their owners, including restaurants, stores, and libraries. 


  • Emotional Support Dogs: While not service dogs per the ADA, emotional support dogs are trained to relieve symptoms like anxiety and distress for a specific person. They are companion animals who support someone with a psychological condition. To be an official emotional support animal, a doctor or medical provider must write a prescription for an emotional support dog. While rights are limited for owners, housing laws indicate that there must be “reasonable accommodations” to allow emotional support dogs to reside in locations that don’t typically allow pets. 


In summary, therapy dogs are not trained to work with one specific person. Rather, these are well-trained, obedient dogs who work with a variety of people and live with an owner. Therapy dogs may travel to numerous settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and mental health clinics, to volunteer their services.


On the other hand, service dogs and emotional support dogs work with a single owner. They are not trained to work with multiple people but are trained to support their specific owner. The ADA protects service dogs, and as such, service dog owners have more legal protections than those with emotional support dogs. 

Finding Animal-Assisted Therapy 

If you’re looking for animal-assisted therapy options near you, it can be helpful to conduct an Internet search or ask area mental health providers if they offer this service. If not, they may be able to direct you to a clinic that uses therapy dogs. 


Bridge to Balance provides New Jersey area therapy services to children, teens, and adults. We also offer telemental therapy in Maine and telemental therapy in Connecticut. We offer individual, group, couples, and family therapy, and we have offices in Hamilton, Voorhees, and Piscataway. We have a therapy dog on our team to provide Animal-Assisted Therapy. Visit our website today to learn more about our services or to book an appointment online. 








Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

221 Laurel Road, Suite 105
Voorhees, NJ 08043

3836 Quakerbridge Road, Suite 108
Hamilton, NJ 08619
(856) 354-0664

Got Questions?
Send a Message!

By submitting this form via this web portal, you acknowledge and accept the risks of communicating your health information via this unencrypted email and electronic messaging and wish to continue despite those risks. By clicking "Yes, I want to submit this form" you agree to hold Brighter Vision and Bridge to Balance Inc. harmless for unauthorized use, disclosure, or access of your protected health information sent via this electronic means.