Animal Assisted Therapy

When dogs go into hospitals, nursing homes, rehab centers and other facilities their impact on patients is irrefutably profound.

All sorts of medical studies have confirmed what pet owners have known intuitively; pets make us feel good. It goes further than that, though. Wagging tails are somehow capable of breaking through barriers medical professionals can’t penetrate.

I’ve long lost count of the number of therapists who have told me about the value of bringing certified dogs into these settings. People are motivated because they don’t know they’re in therapy ” they’re having fun. Then, there’s that ‘bit’ we’ve all heard about, unconditional love. It’s true, these working dogs don’t see the wheelchair or care that a burn victim doesn’t look ‘right.’

But I’ve long wondered, “what about the dogs?” Are animal assisted therapy and animal assisted activities good for them? Are certain types of dogs better suited for this type of work than others? How do you know when a dog has had enough in one session, or when a dog has had enough, period ” and it’s time to retire? Are these dogs actually enjoying the work? You can’t ask the dogs these questions, so I asked their owners.

I conducted a survey via the Internet of people with a dog (or several dogs) involved in animal assisted therapy or animal assisted activities. I presented initial results at the Western Veterinary Conference in Las Vegas in February. The survey, called “The Dogs’ View” had 41 responses from 12 states, and was conducted throughout January, 2004.

I asked, “How can you tell your dog looks forward to animal assisted activities?” Special collars and vests were created so staff at the facilities would understand the dogs are on the job, and also as a means to brand specific animal assisted therapy organizations. It turns out these ‘uniforms’ are a signal for the dog; 27 percent of those answering the survey indicated when they take the ‘uniform’ out, the dog gets very excited, instantly realizing it’s time to leave.

Interestingly, more than one respondent, five percent indicated their dogs know they’re going to a facility when they get a bath. Six percent noted their dogs’ tails wag about twice as fast when they drive up to the facility, and the same percent indicate their dogs are happier than ever to go into the car.

Keeping a watchful eye on dogs who participate is important. I asked, “Have you ever had to leave a session early because your dog had too much?” Nearly a third responded, “Yes.”

The reason most often given, 21 percent, said their dog was ” well, dog tired. Fourteen percent said, they had to leave after a patient died (these responses are from cancer centers or hospice). The patients had passed away just before the dog and handler walked in, or while the dog was in the room. In each instance, the dogs noticed instantly, before the medical staff. The dogs were inconsolable. It’s clear at some level these dogs understood the patients were no longer alive.

After a typical animal assisted session, just over half of the respondents indicated their dog is restful, tired or fatigued. That’s not a bad thing. Twelve percent say their dog needed to “let loose” and run around or play, which sounds like a lot of people I know ” kind of letting off steam after work. However, 10 percent indicated their dog is exhausted after sessions. This is disconcerting, making me wonder if the dog is being worked too hard, or if doing animal assisted activities is just too stressful for that individual dog.

Maybe some dogs are staying ‘on the job’ too long. I asked, “How much time is too much time spent at a facility?” According to 52 percent, anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour is about right. Twelve percent said two hours. However, 10 percent indicated their dogs can work indefinitely.

Are some dog breeds more suited for this work than others? According to the sample of those who answered my survey, most of the dogs belonged to the herding and sporting groups. The most popular breeds or mixes were golden retrievers and golden retriever mixes, followed by various herding breeds and Labradors. With the exception of greyhounds, there was no sight hounds represented. There were only two terriers (one was identified as a terrier-mix) which mean either the owners of these breeds aren’t as interested in animal assisted activities, or these breeds may not be as well suited.

Rehabilitation centers are the most popular place to take an animal assisted activity dog, with 22 percent of those surveyed. Eighteen percent visit a nursing home, 14 percent a general hospital, 13 percent a school (mostly participating in classes for kids with special needs), 10 percent go to a children’s hospital, and five percent visit a hospice. Other facilities utilizing these dogs include daycare centers for children, daycare center for seniors, cancer clinics, a muscular dystrophy camp and libraries. In fact, libraries are increasingly using dogs for young children to read to, as are schools. Kids are less inhibited to read to the dogs, and the canines are trained to bark or offer some sort of approval to boost self confidence.

There are lots of other questions asked in the survey, including, “How do you know when it’s time for the dog to retire?” Twenty-eight percent said they’d wait until their dog became ill, while only one individual indicated she would discuss the issue with her veterinarian. One respondent actually replied, “Till my dog drops.” Certainly, even well meaning people can get too wrapped up in themselves, forgetting about the needs of their dogs.

Several people, about eight percent, say they’ve successfully transitioned their aging dogs into a sort of semi-retirement, from animal assisted therapy (participating in goal directed therapy as directed by medical staff which often means chasing tennis balls and the dogs have to think) to animal assisted activity (these are petting programs ” dogs pretty much are there to be petted, and for companionship, albeit brief).

To my knowledge this is the first survey of its kind, and I sure hope it’s not the last. Animal assisted programs can change lives ” even save lives ” that’s important. However, for me, it’s just as important that the dogs’ needs are met too. But first, we have to figure out what they are. I hope the results of this survey are only a beginning.

Note: This article is copyrighted by Steve Dale and can be used as source material and for reference only. It cannot be reprinted verbatim. Please contact Steve Dale at if you have any questions.


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