What are therapy dogs and what do they do?

Dogs have been assisting humans for as long as we can remember, from farming and hunting, to companionship and protection. But every day we're learning more and more about the endless health benefits dogs can provide us, and the new roles that are emerging for them.

Public interest in the ways dogs can be used to support mental wellbeing has been on the rise, and you may find yourself wondering, what are therapy dogs? Therapy dogs are an emotional support animal that can help with improving human health and wellbeing in a number of situations through doing specific tasks or simply providing themselves as a calming companion. 

Keep reading to find out more about the role therapy dogs play in human life.


What is a therapy dog?

A therapy dog is a dog that has undergone a therapy dog certification to provide support and comfort to people who need it. They are trained to accompany their owners to facilities such as schools, retirement homes, hospitals and other health care facilities. Interaction with therapy dogs can be used to boost morale and help relieve stress, making a huge difference in the lives of their patients. 

Considered to be the founder of modern nursing, it is believed Florence Nightingale pioneered the idea of Animal Assisted Therapy in the1800s. She appreciated the significant role pets play and recognised the benefits they could bring to those recovering from illnesses and other mental health issues. 

A therapy dog is typically a household pet whose owner has volunteered them due to their friendly nature. The dog will continue to live with their owner and undergo a temperament assessment before being given the certification of therapy dog. 

Once certified, the therapy dog and their handler will visit different settings or individuals to help deal with a physical or emotional problem. 

The difference between an assistance dog and a therapy dog:

You may have also heard the term ‘assistance dogs’, or ‘service animals’, but they are not to be confused with therapy dogs. 

Therapy dogs are not classed as an assistance dog on the account that they aren’t trained for one specific individual. Multiple people get to experience their love and care, not just one.

Assistance Dogs vs. Therapy Dogs

  • Assistance Dogs - these dogs are trained for a very specific role and paired with an individual. They will be rigorously trained to carry out tasks aimed specifically at helping their owner cope with certain disabilities. Examples of assistance dogs include:
    • Guide Dogs for the Blind
    • Hearing Dogs for the Deaf
    • Medical Detection Dogs
    • Autism and Epilepsy Support Dogs
  • Therapy Dogs - Also known as ‘comfort dogs’, selected because of their sweet nature and friendly demeanour to provide therapeutic benefits to a large number of people who face difficult physical and mental health challenges. 

What do therapy dogs do?

Therapy dogs provide comfort and companionship to people who are facing a range of illnesses and disabilities. These furry friends are often called upon to provide support to individuals during times they may find challenging. 

There are several therapy programs that benefit from a therapy dog, such as animal assisted therapy. This may involve animal assisted activities that can help to boost morale, increase social interaction, and even help reduce anxiety and depression. 

As well as their therapeutic value, therapy dogs are often well-loved members of the community, providing a valuable service to people of all ages.

What can therapy dogs be used for?

Research has shown that a number of mental health conditions respond well to the use of therapy dogs. Patients diagnosed with autism, depression, PTSD and dementia have all been seen to benefit from the interaction.

There are a number of different roles a therapy dog can play:

Animal Assisted Therapy Dogs

Animal-assisted therapy is a type of therapy used to complement physical and occupational treatments. It can be used to alleviate anxiety and reduce pain while helping people cope with the symptoms of  their condition.

This form of therapy derives from the human-animal bond, the mutually beneficial calming relationship that can form when interacting together. As an example of this, a study from PLOS One found that emergency room patients felt less pain after just a 10-minute visit from a therapy dog.

Animal Assisted Therapy Dog Comforting a Female Patient

Facility Therapy Dogs

These are dogs that will primarily work at places like nursing homes. They are trained to look after elderly residents and help lift their moods. 

A lot of the time, these patients may be suffering from conditions like Alzheimers, or have problems with their mental health. For senior people, contact with pets can help to improve cognitive functioning as well as offering significant emotional benefits. 

Other facilities that these dogs can offer support include education and rehabilitation settings.

Facility Therapy Dog with Elderly Resident

Disaster Relief Dogs 

Disaster relief dogs help bring comfort and companionship to people who have suffered a traumatic or violent experience. They have also helped provide solace to victims of terrorist attacks and other natural disasters, such as the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

Reading Therapy Dogs

These sociable dogs are specially trained to primarily go into schools to help children develop their reading skills. By reading to a dog, nervous children are met with a non-judgemental and attentive listener which in turn can help build their confidence and self-esteem.

In the UK, temperament assessed dogs can volunteer with their handlers to be part of the 'Paws & Read Scheme', helping children develop a passion for reading.

Reading Therapy Dog with Child in Library

How are therapy dogs trained?

Therapy dog training, whether through the support of puppy classes or dog training sessions, will mostly come from you.

Teaching your dog the basics in obedience from an early age (whether that’s starting training as a puppy, or as soon as your dog joins the family) is super important, and although learning fancy tricks is almost guaranteed to put a smile on someone's face, the priority should be to master the following: sit, lie down, come, stay and walk to heel.

It's also vital to ensure that your dog is well socialised, and that they learn to stay calm and relaxed around new people. If you would like more support when preparing to train your dog for this role, then Therapy Dogs Nationwide recommend the Kennel Club Good Citizen Scheme Bronze Award (or equivalent) to make sure your dog is assessment ready. 

Once your dog reaches the age of one year old, you will be able to register with a therapy dog organisation, such as Therapy Dogs Nationwide or the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, where you will undergo an assessment to become a certified therapy dog and handler.

With both of the organisations mentioned above, the assessment process involves spending time with a tester/observer to firstly look at your dog’s overall mannerisms. They will be focused on your dog's characteristics, making sure your dog is friendly, patient and gentle, confident around new humans and enjoys human contact via cuddles and petting.

The observer will look at how your dog interacts with other people and animals, how they respond to new situations, and how quickly they respond to commands. Then, they will accompany you on a series of visits to residents of a medical or school facility that you could end up working with.

If the tester is happy with what they see, you will be registered with that agency and ready to engage on your therapy dog journey.

Which dogs make the best therapy animals?

The most common therapy dog breeds include Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retreivers, Poodles, Pomeranians, French Bulldogs, Greyhounds and Dachshunds.

However, as mentioned above, any dog can become a therapy dog if they have the right characteristics to undergo obedience training. There are even cases that show that with the right love and support, rescue dogs can also make for amazing therapy dogs.

Why are dogs such good therapy animals?

We have domesticated dogs to become the perfect companion, and as well as their unconditional love, these four-legged friends offer an abundance of other benefits to humans.

From daily walks helping to boost both physical and mental wellbeing, to meeting new people and reducing the feelings of loneliness. Even the simple act of petting a dog can help ease anxiety and depression, their presence is calming and mood-boosting, and that’s one of the main reasons why they are such a popular choice for pet therapy.

There’s no truer phrase than ‘man’s best friend’ when it comes to dogs. 

Therapy dogs in the UK:

If you’re interested in learning a little more about how to volunteer as a therapy dog team, there’s no better place to start than reaching out to your local registered charity - two of the most well known in the UK would be: 

For information on therapy dog best practice, Therapy Dog Training UK  provides access through workshops and online puppy training.

Pet Partners also offers an incredibly insightful article on animal assisted therapy, written from a pet handler's perspective within the US. 

It’s worth noting that if you wish to apply for your dog to become a therapy dog, your dog will need to be one year old and you should have owned him or her for at least 6 months. 


Tomorrow is the first day of Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK (9th - 15th May). During this week, we will be highlighting the benefits of not only prioritising your own mental health, but the mental wellbeing of your dog too. 

We will also continue to explore the amazing roles dogs play in our lives, showcasing the many ways they help us on a daily basis.

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