Monday-Friday 08:00am - 05:00pm
Saturday 08:00am - 03:00pm
Sunday Closed

How therapy dogs help improve your physical and mental health

Most dog lovers agree that dogs are a fantastic part of a health lifestyle. They get you out of bed (they need to eat after all), they get you outdoors (lots of dog walks) and they give you unconditional love and loyalty.

Research also bears out the value of pets in our lives. From improving your sleep to reducing anxiety and depression, being around a pet is scientifically proven to be good for you.

But therapy dogs – and their counterparts, service dogs – do more than just passively improve moods. Therapy dogs help to actively improve your physical and mental health – because they are trained to do just that.

But what is a therapy dog? What is the difference between a therapy dog and a service dog? And how can a therapy dog help you with your own physical and mental health?

Let’s explore.

Therapy dogs vs service dogs

What is a service dog?

Many of us would be very familiar with service dogs. These dogs are trained to perform tasks that ease their handlers’ disabilities. They assist their owners to do more and be more independent, as well as help to keep them safe. The one you may be most familiar with is the seeing eye dog. This service dog acts as the eyes for their seeing impaired handlers, helping them navigate the environment around them.

One of the most important rules for service dogs is that strangers aren’t to approach or pet them. When they are out in the world with their handlers, they are working. They are keeping their handlers safe. And petting them could impact on their ability to do that well.

What is a therapy dog?

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, are not trained in specific tasks. Therapy dogs help by being trained to be gentle, friendly and easy going. With one type of therapy dog, their job is to provide psychological or physiological therapy to people that they meet – not their handlers. These dogs are often taken into hospitals, aged care facilities, schools and other places, where they are cuddled and patted and generally interact with all types of people. So, in this case, and as opposed to service dogs, patting is their job.

Another type of therapy dog can be trained to provide these therapeutic attributes to you, as their owner. In fact, you can train your own dog to become a therapy dog if they have the right temperament for the process. Once they’ve completed the training, they will be able to provide support to you. And they’ll be able to provide support to others if that’s something you’re interested in.

How therapy dogs help

How therapy dogs help improve your mental health

Many people with mental health challenges and disorders respond extremely well to working with therapy dogs. Patients who are struggling with challenges from post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s disease and others, have all benefited from working with therapy dogs.

Therapy dogs help support their owners with their mental health challenges in many different ways. Some of these include:

  • helping to reduce anxiety through tactile stimulation.
  • interrupting undesirable behaviours.
  • providing constant body contact.
  • nudging or pawing to bring their owners back to the present.
  • providing deep pressure stimulation.
  • blocking contact from other people.

Of course, therapy dogs help provide general psychological benefits as well. They provide comfort and support. They help lessen loneliness and lift spirits overall. And they increase their owners’ opportunities for socialisation and exercise. All great benefits.

How therapy dogs help improve your physical health

Therapy dogs help with more than just psychological health. Therapy dogs help improve physical health as well. In fact, research suggests that patients who participate in animal-assisted therapy feel less pain after surgery or an accident. This may be due to the fact that when we interact with therapy dogs we increase oxytocin – the mood-boosting hormone – and decrease cortisol – the stress-related hormone.

Research also shows that visits from therapy dogs can decrease blood pressure and heart rate. It also improves heart rate variability, keeping it more stable and consistent.

How therapy dogs help children

Working with therapy dogs can be especially helpful for children. Paws for People, a non-profit in the U.S., has reported that children who work with therapy dogs get a lot of benefits. They feel less socially isolated, develop more social skills, are better focused, have increased self-confidence and decreased self-consciousness and even improved literacy.

Any pet can be a therapy pet

Not all therapy animals must be dogs. Though dogs are the most common, therapy animals could be cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and horses. As long as they have a good temperament, are people friendly and are well trained, these types of animals – and many others – can make excellent therapy animals.

Getting a therapy dog

If you’re keen to explore getting a therapy dog – or training your dog to become a therapy dog, great. Get in touch with the Delta Society or Therapy Dogs Australia who can help you to start the process.

If you’re on the fence, or wondering how therapy dogs could help you, speak to your psychologist. They can help you to identify whether and how a therapy dog – or any therapy pet – could work for you. Together you can consider the benefits that therapy dogs have to offer, both psychological and physical. Whether you’re dealing with a diagnosed mental health challenge or just looking for a bit of calm in the midst of a difficult time, therapy dogs might be just the help that you’re looking for.

Author: Di O’Malley – Founder and Managing Director of Young Minds Health and Development Network, and Counselling Psychologist.

If you need professional support for any mental health challenges, please call us on (07) 3857 0074 to book an appointment with one of our clinicians. Or send us an Appointment Request via this website. We’ll contact you as soon as possible to book a suitable time for you.