Therapy Dogs: How They Improve Our Mental Health

Published on: 23 Mar 2017
puppies sniffing flowers

I am not sure what it is about dogs, but they seem to possess a sixth sense when it comes to knowing when owners are going through an emotionally difficult time.
I once owned a dog called Molly. She was a mix between a Labrador Retriever and an Afghan Hound. Molly was an enthusiastic dog who loved nothing more than to play and was a deeply affectionate animal. She lived for 17 wonderful years.

I have especially fond memories of Molly because she got me through some of my most challenging times after giving birth to my son. If you suffer from postpartum depression, I am sure you can appreciate that getting even a small amount of relief is better than getting none at all.

Recalling those memories with Molly has given me the motivation to carry out some research into the therapeutic benefits dogs have on people who are ill or suffering from depression.

A History of Dog Therapy

Animals proved to be excellent aids in therapy as early as the 18th-century, originating in the York Retreat in England. Doctors there started using dogs, chickens, rabbits and other such small animals to help improve self-control in mentally challenged patients. When the abilities of a patient developed well enough to care for the pet, they were well on their way to start caring for themselves.

Dog Therapy re-emerged during the 1940s when dogs were used as companions to war veterans in a rehabilitation hospital in Pawling, NY. During the trial, doctors noted how the use of dogs helped patients move their focus from concentrating on their problems to the caring and training of the pet.

Fast forward to today. There is wide acceptance of the fact that animals have positive effects on a human mental health. We see therapy dogs thrive in establishments as varied as schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and rehabilitation centers. They provide a great source of laughter, affection, and moral support to the elderly, children, and hospitalized patients. Their talents for improving people’s outlooks seems almost boundless.

In addition to the well-known service guide dogs for the visually impaired, service dogs have long been a great aid to the physically disabled. Dogs alert the hearing impaired when fire alarms go off, aid the physically disabled by pulling wheelchairs, and even warn patients with epilepsy from impeding episodes of seizures.

Why Dogs?

Their great ability to interact socially with humans is the very reason why dogs make the best pet therapy animals. It sometimes seems they enjoy the company of humans even more than they enjoy the company of other dogs. A dog does not care whether an individual is well or ill, mentally adjusted, young, old, or physically challenged. They are oblivious to these cues. They only want to play with and be loved by humans. They give love, something many people are starved of, freely with no conditions attached. Patients who have difficulty being touched or touching other people will sometimes allow a dog to touch them.

What Breeds are Best?

The breeds that make good dog therapists are those with higher temperance due to their ability to interact and tolerate people they don’t know. Dog therapy training programs will have various eligibility criteria such as age, no history of aggression, demonstrating basic obedience skills, and having all vaccinations up to date.

The American Kennel Club [AKC] runs a therapy dog program that allows owners to earn the AKC Therapy Dog™ title once a number of visits in various facilities are successfully completed. In addition, there are non-profit organizations that help prepare animals and their owners to provide therapy through a home study training program. A number of these programs are accepted by AKC as reputable therapy dog organizations.

You can visit and for more information. On completion, you and your dog can volunteer to visit patients in hospitals, nursing homes, retirement homes, and other institutions and start improving the mental well-being of people everywhere.

Alison is a health professional and lifelong dog enthusiast. She owns a Scottish Terrier named Pebbles and is a contributing writer at

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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