Dogs are called “a man’s best friend” for a lot of reasons. There’s the constant companionship, unconditional love and affection, and the way that they seem to hang on your every word when you’re spilling your guts after a hard day. Even though most people find that their dog provides a level of comfort and therapy within their home, with therapy dog training and certification, your dog can get licensed to provide therapeutic services outside of your home, too.
There is a lot of confusion regarding the differences between service, therapy, and emotional support dogs, so we will briefly go over that here:
- Service Dogs: Service dogs have been trained and certified to do specific tasks to aid their owner, who otherwise could not complete the task. Service dogs help people who are hearing impaired, vision impaired, on the autism spectrum, or who live with other disabilities like cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Service dogs also work in law enforcement to help with drug-sniffing and finding missing people after a catastrophic event. Because of the special training and skills that service dogs use, they are protected by the law, and though their owners love them, they are considered “workers” and not “pets.”
- Therapy Dogs: Therapy dogs also have specific training, but their primary purpose is to provide therapy and comfort to people inside and outside the owner’s home. You’ll commonly see therapy dogs in a school, hospital, or nursing home setting. Therapy dogs have some rights under the law, but not as many as service dogs.
- Emotional Support Animals: Emotional support animals (ESA) may or may not have specific training, and one person generally uses the animal’s services at a time. ESAs don’t have any rights under the law, and some corporations are cracking down on what they consider “appropriate emotional support animals.”
How can a therapy dog help kids specifically?
Therapy dogs are incredibly versatile in ways that they can help children both in and out of your family. There are three main areas – hospitals, schools, and nursing homes – where you will see therapy dogs, and since most children don’t live in nursing homes, we’ll talk about how therapy dogs can help in hospital and school settings.
When children are in the hospital, it can be a very traumatic experience. Heck, when adults are in the hospital, it can be a very traumatic experience! The difference is that while children can understand some of what is going on, they can’t necessarily internalize everything that is happening. All of the unknown factors can increase their anxiety and cause withdrawal or panic that can make treatment difficult.
Therapy dogs are exceptionally patient with children who are afraid, and they can handle a lot more abuse from kids who are too nervous or inexperienced with animals to handle them gingerly. Additionally, therapy dogs are trained to hold still for long periods of time and don’t get skittish around unfamiliar medical equipment.
The medical benefits for kids in a hospital setting include:
- Increased communication
- Elevated mood and socialization
- Reduced anxiety
- Lowered blood pressure and pain
- Increased calm feelings
Medical professionals can also use therapy dogs as “practice patients” so their child patients don’t feel so afraid of a medical procedure. The medical professional can pretend to put on bandages, give shots, and treat wounds to a happy dog, reducing the child’s fears about his own procedure.
You might think that having a dog in a school setting would cause more disruption than help, but therapy dogs can have quite the opposite effect.
For instance, in a Speech Language Pathology classroom, therapy dogs actually help improve speech and communication skills. Dogs are naturally non-judgmental, and when a child feels comfortable with a dog, that child is prone to talk the dog’s ear off.
For children who have endured traumatic experiences and require the guidance counselor, a therapy dog can help the child feel calm enough to talk. Therapy dogs can also help improve the symptoms of emotional disorders, which can be a hindrance in the traditional classroom.
Perhaps one of the most well-known uses for therapy dogs in the school setting is in a literacy classroom. Literacy is composed of fluency (speaking quickly and correctly), accuracy (reading the right words), and comprehension (understanding what they read). Many kids struggle with all or some of those components for various reasons, but a therapy dog can help significantly.
Therapy dogs are trained to listen intently and sit quietly. Having a captive audience can help reduce anxiety around reading and improve fluency, accuracy, and comprehension in children. Combined with the physical benefits of lower blood pressure and improved mood, therapy dogs can turn an anxiety-filled activity like reading into an enjoyable experience for the child. Half the battle to conquering reading difficulty is getting the child to enjoy reading as an activity in itself.
Therapy dogs offer countless benefits to the general public, but they can do an exceptional amount of good when they work with children. In both hospital and school settings, therapy dogs allow for the child to process their feelings and experiences safely and positively so that everyone can improve. Far more than just “man’s best friend,” dogs can also be a child’s best friend.