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Training dogs to provide emotional support

Training Dogs to Provide Emotional Support

Have you ever thought that the idea of training dogs to provide emotional support is a bit like teaching them to wag their tail when happy? Those big, warm eyes and wet nosed nudges tell us our dogs are very attuned to our moods and ready to provide their love.

In a way, you’re right. Simply petting a dog can, for many people, be soothing. Cortisol (our “stress hormone” goes down, and oxtocin (our “anti-stress” hormone) goes up. Reported levels of pain, anxiety, tiredness and depression decline, and in the workplace, productivity generally goes up when dogs are allowed to mingle.

But Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Dogs are not the same. So, what do they do, how do they differ, and how are they trained?

Therapy dogs are specially trained for their role

Therapy dogs and their human handlers work in partnership to provide comfort and companionship. They’re trained to tune in attentively to human emotions and needs, to offer unconditional affection, and be patient and steady in a way that can bring calm in the face of intense emotions.

According to the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP), they’re “trained to provide interactions such as visiting patients in hospitals and nursing homes, working with incarcerated individuals, assisting those in reading programs.”

There are, however, two types:

  • Those designated for Animal-Assisted Activity (also referred to as Animal Assisted Visitation), are trained for their role, but their work is not tied to specific outcomes.
  • Those designated for Animal-Assisted Therapy are actively involved in treatments; their activities are designed, and patient/client outcomes measured, by a credentialed professional.

In either case, unlike service dogs, therapy dogs aren’t granted public access under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Emotional Support Dogs receive no special training

A dog—or any animal—becomes an emotional support animal (also known as an ESA) because their owner designates them as one. There is no specific training that qualifies a dog as an ESA.

Owners who wants to travel with their dog, or have their dog in no-pet housing, must apply for the designation; in some cases, a physician’s note is required. While their care is no less valuable, their ability is based on their personality, connection with the owner, and their overall training in good manners and obedience.

What makes a good Therapy or Emotional Support Dog?

Similar to Service Dogs, dogs likely to be well suited to either role will be friendly, with a balanced disposition. They’re intelligent and confident, as well as responsive to humans. They need to be comfortable with plenty of interaction, including:

  • long hugs
  • jerky movements
  • handling of their paws
  • having their tails grabbed
  • someone staring into their eyes.

Training dogs to provide emotional support for a role as a Therapy Dog does take some time, but carries big benefits to both the dog, and the humans they’ll eventually nurture. If you’re interested in exploring the possibilities for your dog, click to learn more.

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