Introduction to Therapy Animals


The Healing Effects of Therapy Animals

Where Therapy Animals Serve


Retirement Homes, Assisted Living Homes, Nursing Homes and Hospices

Mental and Physical Therapy

Stress Release Clinics

Animal-Assisted Reading Programs

Animal-Assisted Crisis Response

Attributes of a Great Therapy Animal Team


Therapy animals can be dogs cats, birds, guinea pigs, pot-bellied pigs, rabbits, horses, llamas and alpacas. And rats!

Whatever the breed or species, a therapy animal's most important characteristic is its temperament. They are friendly, gentle and patient, and at ease with strangers.

Therapy animals must enjoy human contact and excessive petting, and be comfortable around healthcare equipment. Species that are normally trained, such as dogs and horses, must have mastered basic obedience skills.

Therapy animals are best known for bringing comfort, affection and happiness to people in confined living situations, whether they are in a hospital for a short stay or living in an assisted living home. Sadly, sometimes family and friends are too uncomfortable to visit their loved ones because of their condition.

But therapy animals also serve in many other capacities, including helping people with learning difficulties, assisting medical professionals in providing mental and physical therapy, and bringing comfort to people recovering from crisis.

In all their activities, therapy animals are unconditionally accepting of those they visit.

The Healing Effects of Therapy Animals

Spending time with animals produces marked improvements in humans, affecting the physical, mental, emotional and social aspects of their well-being.

Stress leads to an overproduction of stress hormones, and in-turn increased blood pressure, heart rate, and chance of heart attack and stroke. As you will see on the list, below, a visit with a therapy animal does much to reverse the effects of stress.

Visiting with an animal can reduce anxiety without the need for medication, and elicit positive reminiscing in clients with dementia. Therapy animal teams frequently witness measurable improvements, for example when visiting with chemotherapy patients in order to lower their blood pressure to a level acceptable for treatment.

Here are just some of the healing effects of therapy animal visits:

Mental Benefits

Decrease in stress and anxiety, including that from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Decrease in depression, loneliness and feelings of isolation and aggressive behaviors

Increase in socialization with an outward focus, including opportunities for laughter and a sense of happiness and well-being

Increase in mental stimulation, attention skills, and verbal interactions

Increase in spirit, self-esteem, and feeling of acceptance, enabling a patient to further participate in mental and physical therapy; to be more involved in group activities; and to accept social and emotional support

Physical Benefits

Decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and the stress hormone cortisol

Increase in hormones associated with health and feeling of well-being, including beta-endorphin, beta-phenylethylamine, dopamine, oxytocin, prolactin and serotonin

Increase in level of fitness by providing stimulus for exercise, with improvement in activities in which they are limited

Improvement in motor skills including standing balance, wheelchair and other physical skills

In addition, the benefits listed above may result in a decrease in a person's need for medications.

Where Therapy Animals Serve

Most people think of hospitals and retirement homes when they think of therapy animals. In fact, therapy animals serve in a tremendous variety of venues, and the number of ways in which they help people is equally great and varied.

Working with very ill children, Alzheimer's patients, or in a hospice sounds like a wonderful way to serve. But if dealing with such circumstances is difficult for you, know that there will be others who will do well with them.

Find a venue for your therapy animal work that both you and your animal will be comfortable with and enjoy, and you'll both be able to give the best you have to offer.

Also see:

Request Visits to a Friend or Relative

Taking Your Therapy Animal to Work With You


Hospitals offer a special opportunity to help people through difficult times. Patients appreciate a warm and loving distraction from their pain and worries, as well as the depression and boredom that can result from a long hospital stay. And you will find that family members are every bit as appreciative. Not only because you are comforting their loved ones, but because they are also going through difficult times and appreciate a break from it themselves.

Waiting rooms provide another opportunity to serve. Family and friends spend hour upon hour waiting during a patient's surgery, all the while worrying about the outcome.

Hospitals require strict adherence to sanitation guidelines, including hand sanitizing before and after each visit. When animals are placed on a bed, they are placed on a clean sheet or towel used just for that visit. You must also be very careful not to disturb a patient's injury, or medical equipment such as IV tubing.

Retirement Homes, Assisted Living Homes, Nursing Homes and Hospices

The distinction between retirement homes, assisted living homes, nursing homes and hospices is important in that each represents a different group of clients, although the lines are not always clearly drawn.

In each of these types of facilities you may visit clients in their rooms and/or visit with a group of clients in a family room. Often those living in such facilities have little outside contact, and your visit may be the highlight of their week.

Retirement homes generally support independent living, and have the air of a senior citizen center. Assisted living homes provide services such as meals and housekeeping, and assist residents with daily living. And many have a special unit to provide for those with dementia.

Nursing homes provide all the amenities of assisted living homes, with the addition of skilled nursing care. Hospices provide specialized healthcare that focuses on relieving suffering for patients who are nearing the end their lives.

Mental and Physical Therapy

While there are many different ways in which therapy animal work is conducted, a significant distinction is made for those activities in which a healthcare professional is directly involved.

The term animal-assisted activities (AAA) is used to describe activities which involve only the handler, their animal, and the client. Examples include visits to patients in hospitals and residents in retirement homes.

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), on the other hand, is conducted by a healthcare professional who uses the animal in providing their service to the client. A session includes the healthcare professional, the client, a therapy animal and its handler.

AAT further differs from AAA in that the sessions are designed to achieve specific goals, and are documented by the healthcare professional to record activity and progress.

In mental therapy, the animal is seen as a friend and ally, thus presenting a safe atmosphere for sharing. Therapists work toward goals such as improving memory, concentration and problem solving, and reducing depression and anxiety.

In physical therapy, clients are motivated to improve motor skills, mobility and balance through exercises such as brushing the animal or walking it.

Stress Release Clinics

The use of therapy animals in stress release clinics has become popular on college and university campuses, and is now becoming increasingly popular with high schools and even businesses.

In educational institutions, these clinics are used primarily to reduce stress and depression in students studying particularly difficult curriculums or studying for final exams. Visits with therapy animals have been reported by students to serve as a more healthy means of stress relief, as opposed to stereotypical alternatives such as binge drinking.

Businesses hold stress release clinics during difficult periods in their business cycle, for example an accounting firm might hold a clinic during tax season.

Animal-Assisted Reading Programs

When children read to others, it not only helps improve their reading, vocabulary and comprehension skills, but also their confidence and self-esteem. But children with poor reading skills can be intimidated, too self-conscious and fearful of ridicule to participate in classroom reading activities.

In animal-assisted reading programs in schools, libraries and other facilities, children read to animals in a safe, non-judgmental environment. They are able to relax and concentrate on the task, while the animal's handler is present to help with reading and comprehension.

Animal-Assisted Crisis Response

Therapy animal organizations that specialize in crisis response are invited by local authorities to place therapy dog teams in areas recovering from crisis. The teams provide comfort, emotional support, and hope to the victims of the crisis, as well as to emergency responders and the staff of other crisis response organizations.

Victims of crisis often shut down emotionally and stop thinking clearly. The presence of a dog, and especially physical contact with one, can help calm a person, allowing them to think more clearly. They are then in a better position to communicate their needs to those working to support them.

Crisis response teams are specially trained to work in stressful, unpredictable environments.

 Pet Partners teams do not respond to crisis sites (disaster sites, shelters, service centers) under the auspices of Pet Partners, and are neither trained nor insured to do so.

Pet Partners teams may respond under the auspices of an independent crisis response organization of which they are a member. Such organizations generally require registration with a national therapy animal organization as a means of pre-screening.

Attributes of a Great Therapy Animal Team

Below you will find lists of attributes that make a great team. But you don't need to have all these attributes at the time you begin your journey. In fact, often students take the Handler Course when their dogs are only puppies.

What is important is that you are confident that you know what is ahead, and that you are dedicated to completing the process.

Muka began work as a therapy dog before he was two

The Therapy Animal:

Controllable, predictable and reliable, even with distractions

Friendly and confident

People-oriented and sociable such that they enjoy visiting

Comfortable being crowded by a group of people and touched, sometimes awkwardly

Non-aggressive and well-mannered with both people and other animals

Will initiate contact, and yet respects personal boundaries

Able to be redirected on cue, including being directed away from people and objects

Able to cope with stressful situations

Comfortable around health care equipment

Dogs must also have the following essential skills:

Walk on a leash without pulling





Leave it!

Take treats nicely

The animal must also have the following good manners:

No jumping on people or furniture

Minimal if any vocalizing, stoppable on cue

Minimal if any licking, stoppable on cue

Can walk past other animals without displaying aggression or excessive fear

Refrains from intrusive behaviors (nosing around)

Reliably housebroken

The Handler:

Willing to make commitments and keep them

Interested in people

Friendly, making eye contact and smiling

Good communicators with their animal, facility staff, and the people they meet during visits

Confident and natural in their interactions

A good listener

Demonstrates a loving relationship with their animal

A proactive advocate for their animal, watching for signs of stress and taking actions to control the situation

Prepares themselves and their animal appropriately for each visit

Knows how to help their animal be at its best in serving others

Some of the most wonderful pets aren't cut out to be therapy animals