BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

Best Therapy Dogs: Which Are The Dogs We Can Rely On?

Therapy dog
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

«Happiness is a warm puppy.» – Charles Schulz

Dogs can address our needs for companionship and affection and they are considered as possibly the best alternative to having a human best friend. Dogs have a unique compatibility to humans, keeping their masters happy and emotionally healthy for years to come. Dogs can actually go beyond alleviating the usual loneliness that people feel and making their owners happy and content.

Given their keen intelligence and eagerness to please, dogs can undergo training to provide specialized therapy for their masters or for certain individuals. These dogs are called therapy dogs, and what they provide goes beyond the usual affection.

Individuals who need additional emotional reinforcement have the option to seek dog breeds that are highly recommended to become therapy dogs. If you think that you or a loved one may need a therapy dog, even if you consider yourselves as being generally healthy individuals in terms of the emotional and physical aspects, there are several factors you need to consider before getting yourself this type of dog.

What is a therapy dog?

Therapy dogs are those that have been trained to provide emotional support, comfort, and affection to people who may need holistic psychological improvement to regain their well-being. These individuals can be those admitted to nursing homes, schools, hospice care units, and even those in their own homes but have special needs. Although the need for therapy varies in terms of degree, therapy dogs will always be there to sustain treatment and management because they have been trained to lift the patient’s spirit and self-esteem.

One dog help many infographic

It is believed that every dog can be a therapy dog, given that there will be a uniform set of training modules for them to learn this craft and be effective in providing emotional support. However, there are select breeds that actually standout from the rest in this segment. One of the most distinguishing factors that set therapy dogs apart is their personality.

There are dogs that have an exceptional temperament, which makes them good candidates as therapy dogs. Temperament varies per breed, and knowing this information is essentially important because the dogs will undergo extended playtime and interaction. If a dog is short-tempered, this may lead to bigger problems, such as aggression or injury.

Big therapy dog

In general, larger dogs are more suitable for training as therapy dogs. However, given that some people who may need the same kind of help may only have a small accommodation or property, such as a condominium, experts are also starting to consider smaller breeds for this type of canine responsibility.

It is easy to identify a potential therapy dog for individuals who need companions. People-pleasing dogs are suitable for patients who have borderline to mild depression, as these dogs can help them cheer up. An innate desire to please will definitely help patients because this dog will have the curiosity and drive to please its human companion with its best efforts.

History of therapy dogs

People who have only begun to know about this segment of dog services may be surprised that therapy with the use of dogs has been ongoing for more than fifty years. It started during the World War II era, during which constant diagnoses of trauma-related medical conditions have been made among both the armed forces and civilians.

Therapy dogs were first chosen from among dogs that were typically used in the military. These dogs include Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds. These dogs provided emotional care, especially for those individuals who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Even without proper training, which only emerged on a standardized basis in the 1970s, these dogs assigned for therapy work were able to provide the needed support and have yielded promising results.

Therapy dogs helping boy

Therapy dogs have been visiting hospitals, hospice centers, disaster areas, and even schools and universities to promote emotional support. Wherever there is stress and emotional support is needed, therapy dogs can go there and provide assistance. There has been an increase in the frequency of therapy dog visits to regular schools in recent years. This is due to the confirmed emotional support that they can give to students who are academically stressed or emotionally damaged due to bullying.

The milieu of therapy dogs during the early 1990s was confined to special education schools, and they were only used to provide therapy for children with speech impairment, autism, and Down’s syndrome. Nowadays, these dogs have been going everywhere and providing therapy for students on all academic levels, from kindergarten to post-graduate, and all these visits promote positive results.

If you’re interested in training your dog to be a therapy dog, here are some basics you need to know on training a therapy dog.

Benefits of having a therapy dog

It has been proven by a large amount of research results that having a therapy dog promotes the release of oxytocin and dopamine, which are involved in stabilizing the mood and well-being. Therapy dogs can boost self-confidence for both child and adult patients. The socialization that a therapy dog can provide is very effective with children who have confidence issues, because it allows these children to speak more and interact with their therapy dogs rather than be subjected to the pressure of interacting with another person.

Therapy dog with seniors

Dogs are considered as the most emotionally supportive pets that anyone can have. Humans will never get the same extent of emotional support from a turtle, a goldfish, or even a cat. Because dogs have this warm and positive personality, they can promote the well-being of even those who claim that they are emotionally well. The interaction a dog can provide is the next best thing to interacting with an actual human. Dogs can even promote better communication in some cases, because their attention is undivided.

Selecting the ideal therapy dog

There are several things that should be considered before selecting the ideal therapy dog. It is important to first identify the needs of the patient. Depending on the required level of therapy, this should be a collaborative project among the patient, a veterinarian, and a doctor to make sure that the needs of the patient will be met and the objectives of the therapy will be achieved.

The most popular therapy dog breeds have been divided into three groups: personality, small size, and large breeds. These groups can address the therapeutic needs of their patients depending on the level of therapy required, space, and breed preference. There can be breeds that are listed across the three groups, in which the selection will only have to depend on the preference of the person who needs therapeutic aid.

Remember that therapy dogs can be guide dogs, dogs for emotional support, and dogs for physical support, which is why it is very important to recognize the needs to be addressed before selecting the preferred breed.

People-pleasing dogs

People-pleasing dogs, as this category implies, will do whatever it takes to please their human companions. These dogs are extremely compatible with people. They have a positive aura and a very warm and cheerful attitude that can light up any dull day. Some veterinarians even indicate that several breeds included in this category are terrible watchdogs because they are so warm and affectionate, even to strangers, which is actually a good thing for someone that is looking for a therapy dog.

Collie therapy dog

The dog breeds here range from small to medium-large sizes. These breeds share almost the same overall personality.

People-pleasing dogs
Bulldog
Beagle
Bichon Frise
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
French Bulldog
Flat-Coated Retriever
Collie
Maltese
Pug
Irish Setter

Overall, the dogs under this category are even-tempered and can deal with varying levels of therapeutic needs. Their immense desire to be with their human companions facilitates perfect socialization with individuals dealing with depression or disability. There is only one precaution specifically for French Bulldogs, as they are not that compatible with patients who have small children or other dogs.

Best therapy dogs – small to medium category

The dogs under this category are suitable for patients who live in small to medium-sized homes. They will only require a moderate amount of physical activity. Individuals who live in suburban or city areas where living spaces are quite limited have a preference for these dogs. Numerous toy dogs made this list, especially those that are less feisty and low-maintenance. The Chihuahua, for example, is considered as a one-person dog that can establish rapport with its human companion and can stay with them for a very long time, thanks to their long life expectancy.

Therpay dog with woman

Also, the toy dogs in this list are considered as light to moderate shedders, which means less time cleaning the house because of the need to vacuum and sweep hair.

Small to medium therapy dogs
Chihuahua
Toy Poodle
French Bulldog
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
Dachshund
Pug
Bichon Frise
Beagle
Yorkshire Terrier
Corgi

Best therapy dogs – general category

The dogs included in this list are those that may require a considerable amount of physical activity because of their high energy and exercise requirements. Most of the dog breeds in this category are considered as the best of the best in the aspect of being a therapy dog. The Golden Retriever has been widely known as the most consistent breed and is thus the quintessential therapy dog, thanks to its calm demeanor and friendliness to strangers. The breeds included in this category have a considerable amount of energy to fulfill the patient’s entertainment needs.

It can be observed that some breeds here are quite uncommon for mainstream dog owners. These breeds include the Greyhound, which is well-known racing dog, and the Saint Bernard, which is famous for its massive size. These dogs are gaining popularity because of their temperament toward individuals who need emotional support, and their loving attitude is causing them to start to gaining momentum for training for this kind of dog purpose.

Also, this category includes the dog breeds that can help individuals with physical disability, such as guide dogs for the blind or assist dogs for those who use walkers and wheelchairs and who need emotional support as well. These requirements will necessitate a dog that is big enough for the owner to interact with them easily. For instance, in the case of seeing eye dogs, smaller breeds may cause blind individuals to trip because they are too small.

Best therapy dogs – general category
Labrador Retriever
Golden Retriever
German Shepherd
Greyhound
Rottweiler
Beagle
Saint Bernard
Pomeranian
Standard Poodle
Pug
French Bulldog

Life with a therapy dog

Several canine groups in North America promote the use of therapy dogs for establishing a long-term relationship with patients. This means that even when the patient is already healed or regained emotional stability and wellness, these dogs could stay with its patient. Although there are some instances in which therapy dogs will only stay with the patient for a time, the time consumed will still be a worthwhile experience.

Although the patient needs the support that a therapy dog can provide, he or she must not forget the needs of the therapy dog as well. These needs include food, hydration, and grooming. An issue among patients with severe emotional problems is that they tend to neglect their therapy dogs. This is something that the doctor and the veterinarian should advise the patient’s family members about to ensure that the mutual needs will be addressed. To help with the new adjustment, you should definitely check out this article on how to prepare for bringing a new dog home.

Therapy dogs helping one in need

As a patient, please remember that even though the dogs in this kind of category have an extended amount of patience compared with that of other breeds, their patience is not infinite. They can still growl and even bite when pushed to the limits. Everything must be in moderation.

Some people would rather train their own therapy dogs, because therapy dog training can simply be divided into two modules – obedience and social skills. However, it is not that easy to implement. Even if you will be the one training and utilizing your own therapy dog, it may not be as well trained as those that underwent professional therapy dog training.

Moreover, if you will be offering your dog as a therapy dog, certifications and a valid license may be required for authentication. If you have the patience and time, you can actually enroll to community groups that give discounted or even free therapy dog lessons to help you improve as a person and as a dog owner while engaging in modules and group activities. Even individuals that consider themselves as emotionally healthy can benefit from having a therapy dog by their side because sadness and other shifts in emotion are normal, and therapy dogs can definitely help.

Professional dog therapy trainers recommend that the ideal minimum age for a therapy dog should be at least a year old. At this age, the dog is already matured enough, both mentally and physically, thereby reducing potential injuries that may be caused by excessive play and growing pains.

In addition, year-old dogs are more well-mannered, such that there is an absence of excessive woofing and jumping, which may agitate the patient, as well as reduced hyperactivity. This is really important because the goal is to provide support, not agitation or added stress that may aggravate the current symptoms exhibited by the patient. Hyperactivity can also trigger past trauma or reintroduce a new one, which can make the therapy a bit more difficult to manage.

Therapy dog groups

There are many therapy dog groups across North America that may cater all kinds of patient segments that require therapy. These groups are committed to supporting therapy through a definite breed. Some groups focus on a specific patient condition that needs therapy, whereas others focus on a particular location, such as hospitals or areas hit by a disaster.

Dogs healing power

These groups are in a constant pursuit of improving the system of therapy dog training to address the concerns of the patients while keeping the therapy dogs healthy at the same time. Social networking sites also have several informal groups that offer an exchange of ideas for therapy dog owners and veterinarians, who can give professional advice regarding a particular concern or situation.

Local groups are available in bigger towns and cities that offer symposiums and scheduled events to promote the importance of therapy dogs to humans, as well as increase awareness in terms of care, purpose, and mutual well-being.

Being a therapy dog is one of the best purposes a dog can have, aside from being a watchdog or a police dog. These dogs have been on this kind of responsibility for quite some time now, and they have been giving their all to do what needs to be done to exceed what is expected of them. From helping address physical disabilities to providing emotional support; these dogs prove that no matter what happens, a dog will always be there.

As mentioned earlier, happiness can be brought by a warm puppy, but a therapy dog can do so much more than just bring warmth to your life. Dogs have the ability to not only warm your weary heart, but also to touch your soul during your toughest or saddest days.

About the author
Wyatt Robinson
Wyatt Robinson

Wyatt Robinson had a great 25-years career as a veterinarian in United Kingdom. He used to be a member of British Veterinary Association and worked in 3 pet hospitals in London and Manchester. He is shining when he sees his pets healthy and full of energy and it is his duty to help other dog owners to keep their best friends full of life.

  • anna willard

    My best friend is showing interest in Aussies and is thinking of getting one. Her husband is also helping out a lot hospitals, nursing homes, etc so they want the dog trained as a therapy dog. Do Aussies make great therapy dogs? Or are there other dog breeds that they should consider?
    What qualities should we look for in puppies to qualify them to become excellent therapy dogs? Thanks for any input on this. :)

    • Aussies are high-energy dogs and this is also the main reason why it is not one of the most recommended breeds for this type of «job». They are smart dogs, but due to the exercise requirement and innate personality, it can be quite a challenge to turn these dogs into therapy dogs.

      Poodles and Golden Retrievers are some of the most recommended dog breeds to work as therapy dogs. They aim to please, and are very affectionate which is very therapeutic for the patient undergoing therapy.

  • Sally

    I’ve seen a cute English Mastiff who served as a therapy dog. He would just be around the patients for a short while and everyone would seem different — mentally they just had a shift! But I don’t see that kind of dog on your list. Would you say they could make good therapy dogs, or was that just an exception?

    • Wyatt Robinson

      In my humble opinion, any dog can be a therapy dog. It just so happened that some dog breeds excel as therapy dogs compared to others. An English Mastiff has this temperament that can make them a good therapy and companion dog, so this is not totally surprising.

  • Kristi Horner

    What about a Siberian husky?

    • Wyatt Robinson

      A Siberian Husky is actually a great choice as a therapy dog provided that it will be properly trained and socialized. It can have a little stubborn streak, but its affinity with younger children is something that is truly remarkable.

  • Virgil Chandler

    Wyatt, I am thinking of getting a therapy pug for my 16 year old disabled son, is this a good choice? I want a pet that’s not too big, as he doesn’t quite like big dogs. He has clinical depression and I really want something that’s going to brighten him up a bit!

    • Wyatt Robinson

      This is an absolutely good choice. Pugs are low maintenance, small, and loves company as well. Your son will absolutely love a companion he can carry and walk.

  • Carrie Phelps

    I am really happy that therapy dogs are much more prominent than they were decades ago. The corgi would definitely be my first choice if I do decide to get a therapy dog! Thanks for the plethora of info you put into this!

    • Wyatt Robinson

      You’re welcome Carrie! I agree with you, therapy dogs are not as prominent and this is such a breakthrough most especially that more people need dog companions for health needs. Such an adorable choice for a therapy dog!

  • Iris Cohen

    A friend of mine (a disabled vet) told me that most vets love to go for the golden retrievers when choosing a therapy dog. Is this true? From what I have seen large dog breeds are the most loved therapy dogs out there. I do not need a therapy dog right now, but if need arises in the future, I’ll be sure to make reference to this article!

    • Wyatt Robinson

      Thank you Iris! It really depends on a person’s personality. However Golden Retrievers are preferred for the breed have a long history of being a family dog, smart, easy to train and are people pleaser. There also other type of breeds that are therapy dogs may they big or small. Choose what fits your needs.

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