Helping Paws: Therapy + Emotional Support Dogs

Helping Paws: Therapy + Emotional Support Dogs

Dogs have been lending a helping paw to humans for thousands of years. Herding, search and rescue, retrieving... But it's no secret that dogs also have a real talent for emotional support. Who hasn't come home after a long day, put their arms around their dog, and suddenly felt worlds better? As dogs' ability to provide emotional support became more established, we started training them for exactly that. Today, both therapy dogs and emotional support dogs are specifically trained to provide the unique calming and therapeutic benefits that only dogs can.

But what’s the difference between therapy dogs and emotional support dogs? What are they trained to do and where are they allowed to go with their owners? We sat down with a therapy dog owner to find out exactly that.

Samantha is a school counselor in Iowa and the proud owner of Birdie, a two-year-old Golden Retriever therapy dog. Birdie is specially trained to provide emotional support to both the students and staff at the school where Samantha works.

"My involvement with therapy dogs began in graduate school. I was in my master's program at Minnesota State University, Mankato and my professor had three golden retriever therapy dogs at the time. He brought them to class regularly. I'm in class every day learning about mental health and witnessing the effect these therapy dogs have on my own mental health and everyone around me. It's amazing how quickly the anxiety of a high stakes exam can fade away when a dog lays his head in your lap. I knew that I wanted to be involved with therapy dog work myself someday.”

Two years into her job as a high school counselor, Samantha asked her school if she could start a therapy dog program. The school board agreed, and Samantha began her research to get a puppy and train it to grow up into a therapy dog. “I have never trained a dog before and training Birdie required a lot of help,” said Samantha. “We took classes with local certified trainers from puppy pre-school, adult training classes, and the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen class." It was a year and a half before Birdie was certified to begin working with Samantha at the school, but since December 2019, Birdie has been going to school three days a week spreading calm and good cheer to whomever she meets.

The main difference between therapy dogs and emotional support dogs are the type of environments they are expected to work in. Therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort and support to many different people and, as such, need to be accustomed to many different types of settings, groups, and individual people. Emotional support animals, however, are only expected to work and provide comfort to one specific person. "Therapy dogs work in all types of settings,” says Samantha. “They do a lot of volunteer work in hospitals, care centers, libraries, mental health facilities, etc. Many therapy dogs work in schools exactly like Birdie.”

They also have different types of public spaces they are legally allowed in. Unlike therapy dogs, emotional support dogs are allowed to live in their owners’ homes even if the living space as a “no pet” policy and can legally travel with their owners on airplanes.

Admittedly, the rules around flying with support animals are a little confusing. Federal regulations allow an emotional support animal to accompany their owner on an aircraft, provided that they have an Emotional Support Animal letter from their doctor. Although restrictions from some airlines are getting tighter regarding what animals you can bring on the plane, in the past people have used this rule to bring peacocks, snakes, and many other types of animals with them onto the plane!

Unfortunately, in many states, both therapy dogs and emotional support dogs are not allowed to be with their owners in public spaces like restaurants and department stores.

But that doesn’t stop them from helping as many people as possible! “Birdie has many roles at school,” said Samantha. “Her biggest role is to bring a positive energy and morale boost to the school. She helps students gain confidence in reading by being a reading buddy, is a listening ear when a student wants a friend to talk with, or a shoulder to cry on when a student is sad. Birdie helps relieve anxiety in students who are worried about a big test, just by being present. She is also a warm welcome to a new student who might be nervous to start school. Birdie is a useful tool in teaching respect, kindness, and responsibility. But she’s not just there for the kids, she is also there for staff! After a stressful day, you can often find staff snuggling and petting Birdie on the floor.”

According to Samantha, any breed of dog can be a therapy dog. All it takes is a lot of patience, training, and a willing heart. "We held a literacy night at our school and Birdie's job was to be a guest reading buddy. Kids got to come and sit with Birdie and read books to her. I am not sure who enjoyed it more, Birdie or the students! What I love about this work is that Birdie enjoys it so much. If she didn't, we wouldn't be doing this.”

The future of therapy dogs and emotional support dogs looks bright, with more and more businesses and organizations adopting their use to brighten the environment. Places like dentist offices utilize therapy dogs to bring a sense of calm to their patients and businesses let them bring a smile to staff and customers alike. Even courthouses have begun using therapy dogs to help comfort victims and alleviate stress during testimony when victims may have to relive traumatic events. As the benefit of therapy dogs becomes wider know, you’ll find therapy dogs in nursing homes, libraries and even disaster zones, bringing comfort and joy to everyone they meet. Samantha and Birdie couldn’t agree more. “There are so many ways that therapy dogs can be helpful and useful and could bring such positive energy to any setting.”