Dogs have been contributing to our wellbeing for millennia. Arguably, one of the most revered traits of our dogs, is that they provide us with endless love, affection and companionship; particularly when we need it the most. Many people have told me that when they are feeling down, their dog knows and will behave in a gentle and caring manner to let them know they’re there. Whether that is out of care or concern, dogs know how we feel and they have a remarkable ability to read us better than anyone else we know.
It is no surprise then, that dogs are inducted into a range of environments to provide us with care and comfort. That’s right, they provide us with much needed therapy, and a handful of our best mates even qualify to be official therapy or assistance dogs. I first took note of the value of therapy dogs when I was at the Los Angelos airport many years ago. I was not the only one who didn’t care for flying, and in response to the stress of traveling, a therapy dog by the name of Cali was employed to sit with people and help them relax. She was a gorgeous pitbull mix with the most incredible sense of calm. At first, I sat back, mostly interested in the peoples’ responses when they saw her; transforming from anxious travellers into relaxed friends. It was amazing to watch how this dog could change people’s brains, simply by her presence.
Copious amounts of research show the endless benefits therapy and assistance dogs have in our company. Post lockdown dogs in schools assist in coping with stress, positive socialising and increasing school attendance. Other assistance dogs are bred and trained to help us live an optimal life, if we are disabled, or ill. I have met many owners of dogs from Guide Dogs Victoria, who have all attested to their dog being not just their eyes, but their very best friends, and in many instances; their life savers. When I caught up with an organisation called Story Dogs a while back, I got to see first-hand how the mere presence of a dog not only helped children’s confidence to read out loud, but it showed a marked improvement in their overall literacy skills. Dogs are remarkable, aren’t they?
The list of emotional benefits to people seems endless, but includes;
Improves social skills
Assists with healing of trauma and PTSD
Helps improve sleeping habits
Increases happy chemicals in the brain
The people behind these animal assisted therapies are usually volunteers, who donate their time and care to people who can benefit from their dog’s company. The therapy and assistance dog industries are a highly specialised field, with dedicated people regulating selection and training of appropriate dogs. If you are interested in getting involved, reach out to your local council, get in touch with the Delta Society, or Assistance Dogs Australia as a starting point.
As a behaviourist, I am also interested in the other side of the story. How does providing therapy to people affect the dog’s wellbeing? Whilst a dog in this role may be well rounded and excellent at coping in various environments, they are still a dog and can experience their own anxieties and stress. Therapy dogs are not robots, so identifying covert signs of discomfort or uncertainty are critical for owners and also clients to be aware of. If we also ensure the dog benefits from the experience, then we can be sure that therapy is a mutually rewarding undertaking.