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FAQ– Therapeutic Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and Service Dogs

My posts over the past weeks have focused on some of the many ways that the bond between person and dog can be mutually therapeutic. Today, I’m going to switch gears to address a semantic question: what is the difference between a dog being therapeutic, a “therapy dog,” and a “service dog.?”

Starting with the most basic, and I believe the most important, any dog can be therapeutic. In fact, I would argue that all dogs with the appropriate temperament are therapeutic, and many of my posts talk about the hows and whys of this special, mutually therapeutic, relationship.

Therapy dogs provide comfort to people in a variety of medical, psychological, and rehabilitation settings. In some settings, such as some nursing homes, some schools, and private offices, no special certification is required. Sasha does great work as a therapy dog in my outpatient psychology practice, where she provides comfort, support, and enhances the process of therapy.

In hospitals and other medical settings, therapy dogs are required to be certified. The certification is based on a clean bill of health and a behavioral assessment. The assessment is designed to ensure that the therapy dog will permit strangers to handle her, pet her all over, etc, without reacting and that she is in every way a well behaved dog. Sasha has not yet received her therapy dog certification, and does not need it to work in my office. I have, however, started the process of arranging an assessment for Sasha so that she she will be able to share her enthusiasm for life and affection for everybody with patients at our local acute care hospital.

Service dogs are, as the name implies, dogs that provide a service, sometimes more than one, for a specific person, called the handler. Of these, the most familiar to many people are guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired. Service dogs provide many other services too. Just a few examples are these: mobility support, being hearing assistance dogs, alerting the handler to an incipient cardiac or neurological event (such as a rapid drop in blood pressure or an imminent seizure), and making it possible for a person with ptsd, depression,or panic disorder to go out in public. Dog who provide these last 3 services, and others like them, are sometimes called “psychiatric service dogs.” All service dogs, whether psychiatric, mobility, medical, or guide dogs, are trained to be comfortable in a very wide range of settings and situations, to be extremely well behaved and non-obtrusive in those settings, and to perform their specific tasks for their handler. Such training takes many months and is best done by a highly experienced professional dog trainer.

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