How Does a Therapy Dog Differ from a Service Animal?
Therapy animals, service animals and emotional support animals, what’s the difference? There are three distinct categories with different laws applying to each. While this article will deal mainly with therapy dogs, it is worth taking a minute to explain the differences.
Service animals: By statute, service animals are either dogs or miniature horses who assist a disabled person by performing a specific function. A seeing eye dog is the most common example. Service animals may also assist by performing such tasks as pulling a wheelchair or warning an epilepsy patient of an impending seizure. The Americans with Disabilities Act affords service animals legal rights that pets do not have. They are generally permitted to accompany their owner in most public places and can fly for free on commercial flights with their owner. Service animals are also permitted in all housing units regardless of the housing unit’s pet policy.
Emotional Support animals: These animals help with emotional problems by providing comfort and support. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and panic attacks are some of the conditions where emotional support animals are helpful. These animals are protected under the Fair Housing Amendments Act and the Air Carrier Access Act. Like service animals, they can fly in an airplane with their owner for free and are permitted to live in an apartment or housing complex regardless of the pet policy.
Therapy animals: Unlike service animals and emotional support animals, therapy animals are considered pets who are trained to be of comfort to people who are hospitalized or who live in a nursing home or other institution. Therapy animals are not permitted to accompany their owners in public places like restaurants; they are not permitted to fly on commercial flights for free; and they are subject to the same pet policies in housing units as any other pet.
Not Every Dog Can Be a Therapy Dog.
Therapy animals can be dogs, cats, birds or a host of other animals, but most of the therapy animals we see are dogs. Therefore, the discussion in this article will be limited to therapy dogs. The most important characteristic for a therapy dog is its temperament. The dog must be friendly and at ease with strangers. It must be gentle, quiet and patient. Therapy dogs need to be comfortable with excessive petting and handling by strangers. The dog must be focused and not easily distracted. A therapy dog who spots a therapy cat and gives chase may not have the proper temperament for the job. They must be able to tolerate noisy healthcare equipment without becoming alarmed. Nervous or skittish dogs that bark at every loud noise or sudden movement do not make good therapy dogs. The dog must be obedient and respond to commands. The handler should have many of the same traits required of the dog. The handler should be friendly and enjoy interacting with people of all ages. The handler must be someone with the time and energy to volunteer on a regular basis. The handler must commit to keeping his dog well-groomed and up to date on vaccinations.
Requirements for Therapy Dogs
Therapy dogs and their handlers are volunteers with a desire to help people in need of comfort or motivation. There are two types of therapy dogs. The most common type visit hospital patients or nursing home patients to provide companionship and comfort. The second type assist physical therapists or occupational therapists to help patients meet their goals. This second type of therapy dog and handler work with stroke or trauma patients. They assist therapists working with motility and agility equipment. The dogs are used to motivate patients to work hard and recover more quickly.
Most hospitals and nursing homes require the therapy animal to be certified and insured for liability. There are some cheesy on-line certifications available for therapy dogs. You pay the money and they send you a certificate. But, most institutions using therapy dogs know which certifications have value. Hospital and Nursing Home Protocols may dictate which certifications they accept.. They want certifications that require the dog to be well trained.
There are a number of training organizations that offer therapy dog training. You can contact the American Kennel Club (AKC) for a list of AKC approved trainers. Other organizations you may want to contact are Therapy Dogs United and The Good Dog Foundation. To qualify for therapy dog training, your dog must already have basic obedience training; the dog must be up to date on all vaccinations; and it must be comfortable on a leash that is 6 feet or shorter with no linking metal parts. The Good Dog Foundation does offer basic obedience training which includes: sit, stay, walk on loose leash, relaxation and control.
The dog then moves on to therapy dog training where it learns socialization with other dogs and with people. The training usually includes meet and greet exercises for the dog, familiarization with hospital equipment, role playing for the handler that teaches about working in a hospital environment, and coaching on safe dog handling in a healthcare setting. At the end of the training, the dog is tested. Not all dogs will pass the test for certification. Once your pet is certified, you will most likely need to purchase liability insurance for the animal. Then, you make inquiries to determine which facilities work with therapy dogs, present your certification and insurance paperwork, and start volunteering.
As you can see, transforming your family pet into a therapy dog requires a real commitment in time and money. You must evaluate both your temperament and the dog’s. You must spend the time and money to get both you and the dog trained for this new role. You must keep your dog’s vaccinations up to date and keep the animal well groomed. You may be required to purchase liability insurance. Lastly, you must be prepared to commit regular blocks of time each week to volunteering at the hospital or institution of your choice. It takes a dedicated and compassionate person to undertake the role of therapy dog handler, and that person needs a patient and loving dog by his or her side.