When someone mentions therapy dogs, naturally called to mind are scenarios in which dogs bring comfort to people in need of a little extra. While this aspect of therapy dogs’ job description is accurate, the story doesn’t end there. In this two-way street of giving and receiving love, the dogs are just as fulfilled by the community service they provide as are the people they serve.
Therapy dogs are selected based primarily on temperament. While it is important for any working dog to have some basic obedience under his proverbial belt, and be well-mannered in public, therapy dogs (unlike service dogs) are not required to learn specific tasks. Their job is simply to be their calm, gentle, highly social selves, and offer a loving, connective presence in places like assisted-living facilities, hospitals, hospices, addiction recovery centers, libraries, and schools. An ideal therapy dog candidate loves nothing more than socializing, and sharing quality time with people (of all ages, genders, ethnicities, sizes, shapes and colors). These are dogs who seek out engagement with humans, and have “never met a stranger”.
However, just as a teacher wouldn’t hold her title if she hadn’t any students, or a singer wouldn’t sing without a crowd to receive her song, a therapy dog won’t reach his potential as a canine therapist, until people who need him bring his gift of giving to the surface.
Once this special connection is made between a human and a dog, the now well-known healing effects that dogs have on people are in full swing in the other direction as well. The literal, physiological transformation -- which occurs under both skin and fur during human-canine interactions (with virtually all dogs, not only therapy dogs) -- includes lowered blood pressure, slowed heart rate, decreased feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression and loneliness, and increased output of the “bliss chemicals”, Oxycontin, dopamine, and serotonin.
A positive feedback loop is in effect, wherein the dog’s love gives rise to the person’s well-being, and the person’s need for the dog…gives form and function to his purpose as a fiercely faithful four-legged healer.