Each year, the topic of animal welfare gains more and more traction. As a result, many commonplace ways that we interact with or use animals in our lives are being called into question – one such example being that of therapy dogs. Therapy dogs are dogs who provide comfort, support and affection to people, typically in facility-type settings such as hospitals, schools, nursing homes, retirement homes, hospices and more.
For many, this might seem a bizarre thing to criticise; therapy dogs are a wonderful thing and bring so much joy and comfort to many, what could possibly be wrong with using the special relationship we have with these wonderful creatures to help people struggling with serious physical or mental illness, anxiety or trauma?
Because these dogs often mean so much to so many, the discussion around the ethics of the work we ask these dogs to do is, understandably, contentious. We’re not here to pass a judgment either way, but we do often hear from dog owners considering training their dogs to be therapy dogs and so we thought it was important to take a look at the pros and cons. Wanting to bring a smile and a moment of peace and reassurance to people is certainly a noble goal, but is it right for your dog?
The Positive Impact
Anyone who looks into the work that therapy dogs do will be unable to deny the immense positive impact they can have. Spending time with dogs and petting animals is something we know to be hugely therapeutic – therapy dogs can help counselling patients to feel more relaxed and able to open up, brighten the day of an elderly or ailing individual, help those suffering with anxiety and similar issues to regulate their emotions more effectively and comfort those who have recently been through a difficult and traumatic experience.
Supporting Trauma & Abuse Victims
Along the same lines, the specific support that therapy dogs can offer to victims of abuse and trauma can be irreplaceable – where people are unable to seek reassurance and comfort from their fellow humans, dogs have an uncanny ability to step in and be the shoulder we need. Many dog owners can relate to benefits that a dog’s presence can have when you are dealing with something difficult in your life, and in these more extreme cases it is unsurprising that dogs once again rise to the occasion and are able to give comfort and a sense of safety to people who are struggling.
It Can be Enriching for the Right Dog
Many therapy dog owners will happily discuss how much their dogs love the work they do! For the right dog, spending time with lots of different people and being the centre of attention is hugely enriching. For a relaxed, laidback and sociable dog, there are clear benefits to being able to visit lots of different environments and to receive affection and love from so many individuals. There are few dogs in other roles who get as many pets as a therapy dog!
Helping People with a Fear of Dogs
It’s important that therapy dogs are calm, steady and sociable dogs. Working around vulnerable people such as the sick or elderly, in environments such as hospitals and nursing homes where there may be delicate equipment around, means they need to be relaxed and gentle when they interact with those around them. For someone with a fear of dogs, therapy dogs are the perfect candidates for them to face their fears and begin to experience how wonderful, calming and sweet dogs can really be.
Potentially Stressful for the Dogs
While there is no doubt that the right dog can find therapy work enriching, there are also elements to this role that are likely to cause some degree of stress in our dogs. There is some evidence to suggest that anxiety and stress in humans increases stress signals in dogs – many therapy dogs spend a higher-than-average amount of time around people who are stressed or anxious for a variety of reasons and this may well impact on our dog’s mental health, too. Even for the most laidback of dogs, it should be expected that the work will take some toll – it’s not the same as sitting in their living room at home getting cuddles, and therapy dogs should always have breaks factored into their day as well as more significant time away from the demands of their work. For many dogs, working in these environments could have a significant impact on their wellbeing.
Expectations for how Dogs Should Behave
To become a therapy dog, dogs must have an incredible temperament – it is important they can safely and calmly navigate a huge variety of strange environments, be sociable and affectionate but also calm in greeting new people and be generally quite unflappable. What we ask of and expect from therapy dogs is not normal dog behaviour – most dogs are selectively social and don’t necessarily want to interact with, let alone be touched by, complete strangers; many facilities such as hospitals and even schools come with challenges for dogs, such as slippery floors, strange equipment and noises, people running, echo-y hallways and shouting; therapy dogs also often work around or with people whose conditions may affect their outward behaviour, body language or vocalisations, all of which the dog is expected to take in their stride and be unworried by. This is a huge, huge ask and it’s important we remember that this is not the norm for most of our dogs. Even therapy dogs with the perfect temperament, still need training and careful introduction to everything they may encounter in their role.
Can Lead to Punishing Dogs for Expressing Stress
It’s incredibly important that therapy dogs do not put others at risk or cause further stress to people they are visiting. Some behaviours associated with dogs not wanting to be touched, being spooked by something or otherwise feeling stressed can include: moving away or even grumbling/growling; jumping up (at someone to seek reassurance or towards exit routes); barking; urinating; becoming frantic and barging into things/people; and much more. All of these can be dangerous and problematic in many environments that therapy dogs are taken to, and even the best therapy dog may become worried by something at some point in their career.
Due to the sensitive nature of their work and the pressure and embarrassment their handlers may feel if their dog starts to show signs of distress, it can easily lead to dogs being punished for expressing themselves in this way as this is often the quickest way to immediately contain the problem. While it is unlikely any therapy dog owner would ever deliberately try to supress signs of stress in their dogs, just a few instances like this where the human panics and tells the dog off can quickly cause a docile dog – which many dogs chosen for therapy work are – to completely shut down and withdraw when stressed. This makes it much, much harder to truly assess whether a dog is comfortable and relaxed during their therapy work, bringing us back to the previous concerns around the potential for increased stress levels and unfair expectations on our dogs.
We think you will agree it’s quite a thought provoking subject that requires much consideration and care. If you have a dog that is going to become a therapy dog or are getting a dog to become a therapy dog everything starts with their basic training and socialisation. If you are planning this for your dog, do let us know when you book so we can support and tailor your training to help your eventual goal. To get started with basic to advanced training in preparation to doing the therapy dog training book here https://www.bestbehaviourdogtraining.co.uk/puppy-training-classes/puppy-and-dog-training/