How Therapy Dogs Can Improve Mental and Physical Health

Senior man holding his standard poodle service dog's paw

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Therapy dogs are pets that improve your health by giving emotional support. You can train your dog to be a therapy dog to provide support to yourself and to others.

Therapy dogs live in people's homes. They can also visit a variety of settings, including retirement or nursing homes, schools, hospice homes, and hospitals. They are trained to be gentle and friendly and to accept strangers hugging them or petting them. They are patient and unbothered by children who tug at their fur or adults who want the smaller ones to sit in their laps.

Therapy dogs are just one type of therapy animal. Other pets that can be used for emotional support are cats, rabbits, birds, horses—even llamas and alpacas.

Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs

You may have also heard of service dogs, but they're different from therapy dogs.

  • Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks on behalf of their owners. They receive rigorous, high-end, task-oriented training aimed specifically at helping their owners cope with disabilities. There are laws set forth by the Americans With Disabilities Act that allow these dogs to accompany their owners in public places. 
  • Therapy dogs are sometimes called "comfort dogs." They support a person's mental health by providing attention and comfort. Their sweet demeanors and unconditional love may have a therapeutic benefit to those who face difficult health challenges. Unlike service dogs, however, anyone can enjoy a therapy dog.

Therapy dogs (or emotional support animals) are not covered by the ADA. As a result, they don't have the same privileges for accompanying their owners in restricted public places unless special permission is provided ahead of time. The therapy pet must be invited to the premises to provide some positive comfort therapy.

How Therapy Dogs Can Boost Your Health

Some mental health challenges and psychiatric disorders are known to respond well to therapy dogs. Patients diagnosed with a range of issues, such as depression, bipolar disorder, autism, ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and Alzheimer's disease, benefit from their interaction with therapy dogs and other companion animals.

Sometimes, emotional challenges are the result of physical health problems, and therapy dogs can help with those too. Research suggests that patients who are recovering from difficult surgery or a bad accident who participate in animal-assisted therapy may feel less pain. Studies have shown that such interactions can increase the mood-boosting hormone oxytocin and decrease the stress hormone cortisol.

What Kind of Dogs Can Be Therapy Dogs?

Any friendly breed of dog can be a therapy dog with a bit of training. Larger breeds like golden retrievers, standard poodles, St. Bernards, and Labradors are commonly used as therapy dogs. But smaller breeds like mini poodles and Pomeranians are good choices when the dog and the patient are sharing a small space.

The dog's good demeanor may partially be a function of its breed, but it's mostly dependent on how the dog is raised and how evenly its temperament develops. Prior to being accepted as therapy animals, dogs are tested and observed for their response to stimuli, such as loud or confusing noises, suddenly being grabbed, or even equipment, such as canes or wheelchairs.

Getting Your Own Therapy Dog 

If you would like to learn more about finding a therapy dog to help yourself or a loved one, there are a number of directories online. Do an online search for "therapy dog" and the name of your city or town to find individuals and organizations near you.

If you're interested in learning about training your dog to be a therapy dog or visiting nursing homes or other facilities with your pet, do a web search for "therapy dog training" and the name of your city or town to see what opportunities are available. Or simply phone or email the facility you have in mind to learn their acceptance procedure.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. ADA National Network. Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals. 2014.

  2. Brooks HL, Rushton K, Lovell K, et al. The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. BMC Psychiatry. 2018;18(1):31. doi:10.1186/s12888-018-1613-2

  3. Swall A, Ebbeskog B, Lundh Hagelin C, Fagerberg I. Stepping out of the shadows of Alzheimer's disease: a phenomenological hermeneutic study of older people with Alzheimer's disease caring for a therapy dog. Int J Qual Stud Health Well-being. 2017;12(1):1347013. doi:10.1080/17482631.2017.1347013

  4. Calcaterra V, Veggiotti P, Palestrini C, et al. Post-Operative Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy in Pediatric Surgery: A Randomised Study. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(6):e0125813. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0125813

  5. Petersson M, Uvnäs-Moberg K, Nilsson A, Gustafson LL, Hydbring-Sandberg E, Handlin L. Oxytocin and Cortisol Levels in Dog Owners and Their Dogs Are Associated with Behavioral Patterns: An Exploratory Study. Front Psychol. 2017;8:1796. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01796

By Trisha Torrey
Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.