Boy with dog on snowy road

Canine Therapy

Canine therapy, in which patients interact with service dogs while undergoing therapeutic interventions, facilitates therapy by providing patients with comfort, motivation and physical and emotional support. 

Intelligent dogs with calm temperaments can undergo extensive training to provide highly specialized support in clinical settings or as a patient’s full-time companion. These dogs are referred to as service animals and become certified through organizations such as Heeling Alliance. These dogs can remind their owners to take medication, monitor their owners for seizures and inhibit self-destructive behavior such as tantrums.

Emotional Support Animals, commonly referred to as therapy dogs, are not highly trained to provide specialized support or interventions but are thought to provide medically and emotionally beneficial companionship. With a letter from a medical professional, a dog can be designated a therapy dog and travel and reside in housing that otherwise prohibits pets.

Instances of using animal interactions to help heal from physical and emotional trauma have been recorded since ancient Greece. In nineteenth century England, patients in mental hospitals were encouraged to interact with animals on the hospital grounds. In the early twentieth century, the United States military encouraged veterans to interact with horses and other animals to reintegrate into civilian life. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, noted that young patients especially were more expressive when his dogs were in sessions.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that formal research was devoted to studying the effects of dogs in the therapy process. According to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, an international registry of therapy dog teams, “Dr. Boris Levinson found that his dog had a positive effect on mentally impaired young patients. Specifically, he discovered that these patients were more comfortable and likely to socialize with his dog than with other humans. It wasn’t until Freud’s findings were translated and published years after his death that Levinson’s findings were considered valid.”

Today there are over 50,000 service dogs in the United States. While research has shown the patient benefits of canine therapy are real, it turns out that the relationship is mutually beneficial. A recent study showed that the service dogs like their work, as well.

Possible Uses

The comforting presence of therapy dogs helps patients regulate their nervous systems by reducing blood pressure and cortisol production. Endorphins are also produced, reducing pain and increasing immune system function.

Service dogs are trained to closely monitor their owner’s body language and emotional signals. Their attuned nervous systems can intervene in an adverse event even faster, in some cases, than humans. Service dogs have been trained to help children with autism, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, ADHD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Down Syndrome, depression and anxiety.

How It Works

 The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) categorizes service dogs as the following:

  • Guide Dog or Seeing Eye® Dog – helps facilitate travel for those with visual impairment and can serve as a travel tool for persons who have severe visual impairments or are blind.
  • Hearing or Signal Dog – alerts those with hearing loss to sounds, such as a knock on the door.
  • Psychiatric Service Dog - a dog that has been trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects. Tasks performed by psychiatric service animals may include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches, or turning on lights for persons with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, interrupting self-mutilation by persons with dissociative identity disorders, and keeping disoriented individuals from danger.
  • SSigDOG (sensory signal dogs or social signal dog) - a dog trained to assist a person with autism. The dog alerts the handler to distracting repetitive movements common among those with autism, allowing the person to stop the movement (e.g., hand flapping).
  • Seizure Response Dog - a dog trained to assist a person with a seizure disorder. How the dog serves depends on the person’s needs: the dog may stand guard over the person during a seizure or the dog may go for help. A few dogs have learned to predict a seizure and warn the person in advance to sit down or move to a safe place.
  • (Source: ADA Service Animals Booklet)

    Therapy dogs usually begin their training through extensive obedience classes at an organization such as the American Kennel Club. If their temperaments are suitable, they then endure targeted training under the care of a specialist and then become certified through various organizations such as Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Heeling Alliance, and Alliance of Therapy dogs. Because of this extensive training, therapy dogs usually cost upwards of $15,000, and these costs are not reimbursed by insurance (though they may be health care tax deductions). 

    This article on Autism Speaks details how service dogs help children with autism:

    “An autism service dog, for example, can accompany a child to decrease anxiety during medical or dental visits, school activities, shopping and travel. Some autism service dogs are trained to recognize and gently interrupt self-harming behaviors or help de-escalate an emotional meltdown. For instance, it might respond to signs of anxiety or agitation with a calming action such as leaning against the child (or adult) or gently laying across his or her lap.”

    On the website Noah’s Dad, Rick Smith, describes how his son, who suffers from Down Syndrome, has benefitted from a service dog in his therapy sessions:

  • Motivation: Studies have shown that therapy patients enjoy doing tasks that aren’t normally enjoyable (like physical therapy….which is hard work!) when they are doing things the animal enjoys. In other words, “Let’s go walk a cute dog today,” sounds a lot more fun than, “Ok, it’s time to go to physical therapy today and work really hard which will ultimately help you learn to walk.” Both achieve the same goal, but the first one sounds a heck of a lot more fun!
  • Increase Attention Span: Children (and dads, like me) can find it hard to maintain focus on a specific task for long periods of times. In fact, some days Noah isn’t into therapy at all, and doesn’t want to do anything while we’re there. However, studies have shown than when therapy dogs are present children are more engaged and can stay focused on the task much longer. As you can see, Noah did a great job walking around the building with the dog and didn’t want it to end when he was finished.
  • Cerebral Palsy Guidance advocates the use of service dogs in children’s physical therapy appointments:

    There are a number of reasons to have an animal in the therapy session:

  • Working with animals during physical therapy helps children meet their goals.
  • Therapy sessions are less stressful, and children are more engaged and enthusiastic about doing the work.
  • Animals provide a physical support to help children perform exercises.
  • Children are often more willing to use the animal than an object for support.
  • Animals motivate children to work harder, to meet their goals, and to return for subsequent sessions.
  • Finally, a Turkish study showed that children with cerebral palsy and other cognitive disabilities exposed to canine therapy improved their empathic skills, were better able to receive and offer help, and showed overall strides in communication.

    Things to Consider

    The capacity to care for and continue to train a therapy or service dog is a significant commitment of time and resources, especially when one is already caring for a child with special needs. Before taking one into your home, consider your ability to manage an animal while caring for your child, your child’s feelings about dogs, and whether other household members may have allergies or an aversion to dogs. If any of these pose challenges, your child might be best served by engaging in canine therapy in a clinical setting, such as a therapist’s office.