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Therapy dogs love their jobs. Is your pup cut out for it?

A new study finds that therapy dogs get as much joy from their jobs as they give.
Image: Patient Rayssa plays with Troia, a therapeutically trained dog, during a therapy session in Sao Paulo
Patient Rayssa plays with Troia, a therapeutically trained dog, during a therapy session at Hospital Infantil Sabara in Sao Paulo.Nacho Doce / Reuters file

I was raised with the understanding that dogs are family. My fiancé and I are strongly sticking to this thinking and regard our two dogs as the most important creatures on the planet. We’re always thinking of ways to maximize their happiness. Our senior girl, Netta, has bad arthritis and a less than affectionate attitude toward strange dogs. She’s most content just cuddling in bed; but our new rescue, two-year-old Josepher is outgoing, sociable and eager to learn new tricks.

A few months into a splendid life with Josepher, we’ve been contemplating getting him trained to be a therapy dog. It would be a meaningful experience for me (as his potential handler) having spent much of my childhood in the hospital with my twin brother. I don’t have memories of a therapy dog being around us back then, but I can imagine how happy such a visit would have made us. I’d like to visit a children’s hospital with Josepher and maybe bring just a little bit of cheer to an environment I remember as being so stressful and dreary. But how do I know my dog is right for the job and would he actually be happy providing such a service?

New study looks at dog’s stress levels, finds them to be stable

A new study published in “Applied Animal Behaviour Science” helps to answer that last question. The research, which considered the work of 26 therapy dogs in pediatric cancer wards, found that the dogs weren’t the least bit stressed by the work and even expressed joy in doing it.

A study of 26 therapy dogs in pediatric cancer wards found that the dogs weren’t the least bit stressed by the work and even expressed joy in doing it.

“With this study, we wanted to find out how the dogs find this work,” says Dr. Amy McCullough, national director, rescue & military affairs at American Humane and co-author of the research. “It was important to us to know that dogs are not distressed from these activities.”

The study’s researchers measured levels of the dogs’ cortisol (a hormone that becomes elevated when stressed) by taking swabs of their saliva at various times both on and off therapy duty to establish the dog’s baseline. “We’d then swab about 20 minutes after end of session, and compare that to their baseline to see how it compared.”

The researchers found that the dog’s cortisol levels were stable, meaning they weren’t stressed.

The dog’s behavior is also telling: tail wags and no signs of aversion

To deal with the question as to whether the dog was not only not stressed but also happy doing therapy work, the researchers videotaped the sessions of the dog interacting with the children. “We coded them for behaviors the dog was exhibiting, [identifying] stress-related and affiliative or friendly behaviors. We'd check off every time we saw behaviors like tail wagging, lip-licking [a sign of anxiousness], looking toward the child or turning away. We observed that behavior for the 15 to 20 minute sessions to get a context of the interaction.” The research team also had the dog’s handler fill out report to inform what they did, and who else aside from the child was present.

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.

“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.

“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.”

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