“The results here were great news,” says McCullough. “We did not see any adverse behaviors. The dogs were very engaged with what they were doing. Ultimately, this is a win-win-win. The handler enjoys showing the dog off and volunteering, the [patient] enjoys the dog and the dog likes doing it.”
A busy dog is a happy dog
The study’s findings come as no surprise to Dr. Gary Richter, veterinary health expert with Rover.
Get the better newsletter.
“Therapy dogs are happy because they are doing something they love to do,” he says. “They get to interact with people and perform tasks they were trained for. Just like people, some dogs really like having purpose in their day. While they may not think about it in quite the same terms as us, dogs like to have a job to do.”
Any dog can be suitable, but not all dogs are meant for it
Dogs of all types can be fit for service, but certain traits play a role in their success at the tasks at hand.
“Some dogs need to be physically strong to assist disabled people. Other dogs need to be very in tune to their owners and have an excellent sense of smell in order to detect seizures, blood sugar issues, etc.” Dr. Richter says. “Guide dogs need to be very intelligent and be able to make certain decisions on their owner's behalf. Thus, the right dog depends on breed, personality, trainability and the job the dog is being asked to do.”
A people-loving personality is paramount
One characteristic is non-negotiable, and that’s the dog’s demeanor.
“You want a dog that absolutely loves people,” Heather Gillihan, owner and head trainer at Zoom Room in Trophy Club, Texas, tells NBC News BETTER.” It doesn't really matter if they don’t totally love other dogs (within reason), but you want a dog that just really wants to be with people. You can work with that and teach some of it, but it does come down in part to nature.”
Gillihan notes “an overly nervous or anxious dog is not a best fit,” adding that one of her four dogs is not a therapy dog because she's easily startled. “It’s the hardest thing when you’re dog isn’t a fit because you want to give back. But you have to look out for your dog. If they’re not a right fit, then they’ll be stressed out and dangerous situations could arise.”
How to get started
Your dog will definitely need to go through a certified training program to work with the general public. You can get started by signing up with a local training facility, like Zoom Room, which may recommend a series of basic obedience trainings before getting started with a therapy training program.
“For people who have friendly, sociable dogs, it is fairly easy to train them to go to hospitals and visit with people,” says Dr. Richter. “Usually there are guidelines and requirements in order for facilities to allow dogs to come. People should investigate what they need to do in their area. For more complex tasks like physical therapy assisting, hearing/visually-impaired assistance, or seizure/blood sugar monitoring, the best advice is to work with an organization with experience in training these dogs such as Guide Dogs for the Blind and Canine Companions for Independence (CCI).”
And remember, if your dog isn’t a fit, you can always make a donation or look into fostering a therapy dog.
The need for therapy dogs is growing
Gillihan has seen a tremendous spike in the need for therapy dogs, particularly with the surge of gun violence and natural disasters — both situations where survivors are greatly in need of comfort.
“I get requests constantly for my area and can’t meet the demand,” she says. “Recently a police officer was shot and killed in Dallas and two others were in critical condition. At first I was surprised that our dogs were needed there, but seven of us visited the precinct and it was such a release for these officers to just hold a dog and cry.”
Another area where Gillihan is seeing increased interest is at airports.
“When people get stuck and are frustrated, sending in a therapy dog can really diffuse the tension,” she says. “Our [local] airport is constantly asking for therapy dogs to be there just in case. And why not? Dogs can make us feel better.”
More on how our pets make our lives better
Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.