Assistance dogs, therapy dogs, emotional support animals….what does it all mean?

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With so many posts on social media of puppies being purchased to be a therapy dog or an assistance dog, I thought it could be a good time to discuss what all of these terms actually mean.

Dogs are popularly pictured on social media in roles aimed at improving the health and well being of family members and the community. There are loads of images online of dogs being petted by groups of children, visiting schools and aged care facilities and much more. Research is beginning to show that dogs can have a positive influence on symptoms of PTSD, ASD, anxiety and much more. Physiological symptoms are also reported to be positively impacted through interactions with companion animals including reduced blood pressure and heart rate, perceived pain when undergoing medical procedures, improved posture and balance through riding horses by those with physical disabilities and the list goes on.

The therapy dog industry however is completely unregulated and the popularity of such interventions has grown at a vastly rapid rate in comparison to the regulations and protocols available. This includes the ethics of training and practices in interventions involving animals.

So what does it mean for an dog to be a therapy dog?

A therapy dog is included in activities aimed to improve aspects of health and well being for the individuals interacting with them. These activities could be structured such as interventions involving animal training programs, play-based interventions, cognitive behavioural therapy programs, anger management programs or any other goal directed intervention for a patient that’s being facilitated by a professional within their field of practice. Other programs may be undertaken by volunteers or other paraprofessionals in an unstructured manner where ad hoc recreational activities are done within visits to facilities such as schools, hospitals and aged care facilities. These programs aren’t tailored to individual needs but rather to have more of a ‘feel good’ effect through their mere presence. This may include petting the animals, chatting about the dog, playing with toys and other unstructured recreational activities.

Research is lacking as to what good practice should look like within these programs. Some reports are beginning to become available including recommendations of ensuring that all animals are limited with the number of hours they’re involved in the work, having regular breaks, being closely monitored for signs of stress, being able to leave at any time, being trained and assessed for undertaking the work, good health and hygiene, and most importantly that the dog consents to taking part. All training of therapy dogs should be done ethically and using positive reinforcement training protocols. If dogs are trained using largely aversive based techniques, these methods could shut down the dog’s confidence to communicate discomfort and their desire to leave. A choice that all dogs taking part in therapy dog programs to improve human health and well being should have available to them.

All handlers should be experts in reading their dogs’ levels of stress and discomfort and take them out of those situations. Aversive methods of training can also create negative associations with people, the last thing we want a therapy dog to feel about interactions with people.

Being involved in therapeutic activities can be exhausting and stressful for dogs, it is not an activity that they should be forced to do all day every day. They do need to be dogs after all. Being petted by large groups of people in small confined spaces is not a natural activity for dogs so small durations and having the ability to leave at any time is imperative to ensure the mental health and welfare of the dog.

How is an assistance dog different? 

Assistance dogs work for one person and one person only. They are not a therapy dog, they have a very specific role of assisting and improving the health and functioning of the individual they assist. Their main focus in life is attending to one person and intervening to reduce the impact of their disability on their daily functioning. This disability could be physical or mental. These dogs include guide dogs, hearing dogs and assistance dogs (including physical and psychiatric disabilities). The assistance dog may have very specific tasks they’re trained to do which alleviates the impact of the symptoms of disability for their handler. They may navigate the streets and guide their blind handler where they need to go, they could retrieve the remote control and help open doors and fridges for the physically handicapped owner, they could interrupt panic attacks for their handler with PTSD, they could alert to an impending seizure for their epileptic owner and much more. These dogs should not be petted in public by people or interrupted in their work. Assistance dogs should not also be therapy dogs. They are to work for one person and only one person. To load an assistance dog with being a therapy dog for others too is not only distracting from their work as an assistance dog, but it is an enormous workload for one dog that is not fair to ask of them.

Some organisations sell pre-trained assistance dogs that are approximately 2 years old at graduation. In the psychiatric assistance dog arena it is becoming more popular to train dogs already owned as companion dogs in the home or ones purchased by families to be trained up by themselves privately to become an assistance dog (these dogs are classed as ‘owner trained’ assistance dogs). They are supported by training organisations and certified as assistance dogs through a Public Access Test (PAT) when the dog is over 18 months of age and their behaviour and training is at a high standard. Those certifying these dogs should be registered with an accredited assistance dog organisation. This is a huge undertaking by any family, especially those families already with the demands of having a family member with additional needs. I have the pleasure of working with many families undertaking this path. It’s hard work but very rewarding and with the additional benefit of a lot of tasks naturally developing as the dog and the individual they’ll be working for grow their bond over time. It is however a lot of pressure when choosing the right dog. It is also not guaranteed that the dog will be suitable which may not show itself until later on which can be upsetting and disappointing for the family. It can also be a lot of pressure for the puppy coming into a home when it’s expected they will have this somewhat life saving role for their life rather than simply being a family pet. It’s so important that the puppy is able to be a puppy first and an assistance dog in training secondly or the pressure and stress can quickly become too much for the puppy.

There is a growing number of assistance dog organisations available. The best thing to look out for is the methods used to train the dog should be first and foremost positive reinforcement based. Using positive reinforcement results in dogs with greater novelty in behavioural expression that could be therapeutic, prevents the dog fearing the environment or showing avoidance behaviours, increases enthusiasm and motivation to work, and has the lowest risk of dogs becoming aggressive in anticipation of aversive interactions with the owner. Most importantly, it is the best for having the most positive bond between dog and owner. This also goes for the training of therapy dogs. Positive reinforcement based methods is also recommended by the most respected governing organisations including Delta Society, Pet Partners, the Australian Veterinary Association and the IAHAIO (International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organisations).

And then there’s emotional support animals?

Emotional support animals refer to those that accompany their owners on flights to reduce stress and anxiety around travel. These animals are not public access tested and don’t have the same rights as assistance dogs. Not all airlines will accept travel of emotional support animals due to the limited restrictions around their behavioural assessments and testing. These animals are typically pet dogs that help improve the daily life of their human guardians, however they don’t assist them with their daily living or perform specific tasks to reduce symptoms of a disability out in public areas. They are often not identified by a jacket but rather emotionally support their owner in the home and on public transport.

Interested in learning more about therapy dogs and assistance dogs? Unsure if your dog would be suitable for such a role?

Delta Society Australia: The largest organisation for therapy dogs in Australia. mindDog is the psychiatric assistance dog organisation that I am an affiliated trainer and Public Access Test administrator for. They advocate for only using positive reinforcement based methods of training and support the consent of the dog to work.

Feel free to contact me if you’d like more information on therapy and assistance dogs. It’s a bit of a minefield out there so it can be challenging to navigate the information online.

Our dogs are very special and their bond to us can be lifesaving for many. The impact the interactions they have with others can also be enormously rewarding to witness. When done right, it’s an amazing field to be a part of!

Laura Mundy