Words by Roland Jakob
As most owners will attest, petting a dog can improve mental health as well as physical wellbeing. In fact, interaction with a dog has been shown to lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, and release endorphins that calm and relax the mind.
Therapy dogs can reduce overall physical pain levels and help minimize anxiety, stress, and depression. They can play an important role in rehabilitation and care. In theory, any breed can be trained as a therapy dog, but in reality, some breeds are better suited to the role.
Although dogs are the most commonly used therapy animal, they aren’t the only pets that can have therapeutic effects on people. Research shows that horses, guinea pigs and even fish in a tank can have soothing and calming effects on people and children who suffer from mental conditions.
Cats are also very popular therapy and emotional support animals. But let’s focus on canines first.
A therapy dog needs to have the following attributes:
Intelligence – Intelligence not only makes training easier, but it means that a dog will be able to read a situation, determine what’s required, and provide the therapy needed.
Adaptable – A therapy dog needs to adapt to new situations and new people. Some dogs, especially those used for rehabilitation, will not spend too long with a single person, and all therapy dogs will need to adapt to new locations and situations.
Trainable – A well-trained therapy dog not only responds to commands, but is trained to behave calmly, provide care where it is needed, and they need to learn to do all of this in loud and difficult circumstances.
Focused – The therapy dog will need to retain focus throughout its work. These dogs can work in challenging situations and conditions, but they need to be able to perform their duties regardless.
Calm – One of the purposes of a therapy dog is to calm patients, or to prevent calm people from becoming agitated. They can’t do this or provide therapy if they are not calm themselves.
Gentle – No matter how friendly and calm a dog is, it also needs to be friendly. Some dogs can weigh nearly as much as a person. If they jump up at their human companions when greeting them, it can lead to accidental injury.
Clean – Therapeutic environments can include hospitals and nursing homes. The dog should not carry bugs or germs into these environments, so one that is low shedding and doesn’t drool is preferred.
Comfortable Being Touched – The greatest benefits of using therapy dogs come when patients are allowed to stroke and pet the dog, although their presence alone can have a calming effect. The dog must be happy to be stroked and touched but remain calm.
The Best Therapy Dog Breeds
There are a lot of criteria required when looking for therapy dogs. Fortunately, there are thousands of breeds of dog, and many of them that meet and exceed these criteria. Some of the most commonly and successfully used breeds include the following.
The Labrador is loyal, loving, caring, and affectionate. He is happy and gentle. It’s little wonder that he is the most popular dog breed in the US, and has been for many a year. He makes a great therapy dog because he is also trainable and remains calm.
The Golden Retriever has most of the same traits as the Lab, except that his shedding tends to be more noticeable because of the length of his hair. You should also do research about the differences between male and female Golden Retrievers, as some factors might influence their ability to be good therapy dogs.
The German Shepherd has found use as a guard dog, police dog, search and rescue dog, and even a bomb detection dog. He is clever, dependable, remains incredibly calm, and he can be loving and affectionate, too.
Whether standard or miniature, the Poodle is another clever breed. He also has the advantage of being described as having hypoallergenic hair. Although this isn’t strictly true, he doesn’t shed, which is another reason for his incredible popularity.
The Border Collie isn’t just great working in the fields and tending his flock. He is eager to please his owner and everybody else around him. His attention is unwavering when working at an assigned task and he is considered the most intelligent dog breed – an excellent choice for a therapy dog.
Beagles are not only friendly and easy to train but are often preferred over larger breeds like German Shepherds because they are less intimidating. They do tend to be a bit vocal, but good training can bypass this.
Cavalier King Charles
If you want to be sure that a dog won’t intimidate people, the Cavalier King Charles is sweet and lovable. He also has a very appealing coat and most King Charles have a strong desire to be stroked.
The Corgi meets all of the requirements of the therapy dog, and despite his slightly lazy and laid back look, he is quite spritely and energetic during his younger years. He has a smile on his face most of the time.
The Pomeranian is characterful. He’s also small enough to comfortably sit on most peoples’ laps. He will happily make his way around a room full of people to say hello to everybody.
The Maltese is another lap-sized dog that is begging to be stroked. What’s more, he uses his lap size to his advantage, finding a warm knee upon which to curl up and sleep.
The French Bulldog looks like he’s always smiling, and that’s because he’s virtually always happy. He’s especially happy when he’s with people, so that makes him a great therapy companion.
Pugs are ideal for therapy patients of all ages. They are especially friendly with children, and they’ve got quite a lot of play in them, as well, which further endears them to the younger generation.
The Yorkshire Terrier is another small dog with a big heart. They are smart and lively, and they can be easily trained by an experienced handler. They can also enjoy some lively time when called upon.
Choosing a Therapy Dog
Choosing the right breed is only half the job when it comes to finding the best therapy dog. The individual animal needs to have the right mindset and character, and he needs to be trained well, too. The breeds above are just a sample of some of the breeds that excel in this area. And remember, if dogs aren’t for you, there are various other animals that can qualify as therapy pets!
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