Therapy Dogs – The Physical and Psychological Benefits

“Pets are embedded in the soul of our humanity,” says Dr. Edward Creagan, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, as he explains his feelings for a special colleague in a recent article. Dr. Jack, the only four-footed professional at the Mayo Clinic, is one of more than 10,000 therapy dogs trained by Pet Partners, an organization whose foundation is based on the positive health and well-being that animal interactions can offer people suffering with physical and psychological problems. UCLA’s People-Animal Connection, run by Jack Barron, has 50 dogs that conduct more than 500 sessions a month with their trainers. Barron says that although his organization has many different breeds of dogs, Labradors and golden retrievers are usually the best dogs to enter the therapy field. He says, “They were brought into this world to please people.”

Therapy dogs can help facilitate therapy by actively participating in the treatment protocol. Additionally, therapy dogs act as assistance dogs, helping clients complete activities that they cannot due to physical limitations. Therapy dogs also act as companions and provide vital interaction to clients who may otherwise not respond to visitors or clinicians. This sector of the medical field is highly trained to ignore things that would stimulate other dogs, such as strong smells and loud noises. They must also be able to interact seamlessly with people of all personality types. Barron says, “A dog picks up on any nervousness in a person. It comes out in the leash.” One study revealed that people who had interacted with therapy dogs had experienced a decrease in epinephrine and norepinephrine, the stress hormones, resulting in lowered blood pressure. Another study showed decreased anxiety in 28 clients who had spent time with a therapy dog. It has also been shown that when therapy dogs were introduced to nursing home residents, they experienced fewer symptoms of loneliness and depression.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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  • Emily Grantham

    July 20th, 2011 at 7:03 PM

    Therapy dogs are vastly underutilized and that’s a shame because they can reach people in ways that human beings can’t. There should be more funding for the training and care of these animals and handlers. They are so intuitive (if you take the time to notice) about how their owners or visitors are feeling.

  • Conrad Nicks

    July 20th, 2011 at 7:33 PM

    My dogs know me better than my entire family does. Without them I think I’d go nuts. Even ordinary dogs can be a Godsend when you’re low and feeling depressed. They are great listeners, non-judgmental and always glad to see you. More than I can say for my brood! LOL.

    Therapy dogs in every clinic in the land would be a great goal for our healthcare system to strive for. I’m sure they would be cheaper than most medications.

  • adrianna w.

    July 20th, 2011 at 7:43 PM

    I worked in a nursing home and we had a lady that brought her dog in every week to the communal lounge to visit with residents for the afternoon. It was nothing short of miraculous how much that little dog’s visits boosted our residents.

    Some that would barely talk would be all over him, wanting to pet and play with him, and the grumpiest ones would have beaming smiles. They would start talking about dogs they had owned themselves or that had somehow touched their lives.

    He was such a great pooch too, who loved everybody and never tired of all the cuddles and attention, a very loving and affectionate dog that seemed to be able to tell who was frail and who was up for tug-o-war. Technically he wasn’t a therapy dog but a blind man could have seen how much good his presence did in energizing them.

  • Claudette Cole

    July 20th, 2011 at 7:47 PM

    Even just petting an animal can be enough to bring down your blood pressure and anxiety levels. My widowed aunt’s doctor suggested she got a little dog because she needed to be out walking and getting exercise, plus she suffered bouts of loneliness and depression. She got a King Charles spaniel from the shelter and what a pair they made.

    She changed so much! I’ve never seen her happier than when she was talking about the dog and what it had been up to or sitting with him on her lap, stroking him. That doc was a smart guy. :)

  • Jason Burns

    July 20th, 2011 at 8:06 PM

    Interesting thoughts and article. I have known for a long time that spending time with my four legged friends definitely calms me down. I have seen the same thing with my sisters step daughter. She suffers from downs syndrome and when she gets anxious my sisters dog generally will step in and things get better. How much long term benefit though are the actual sessions that people get with the animals?

  • anthony dalton

    July 20th, 2011 at 9:32 PM

    Something I read before went something like this. “Dogs don’t live as long as humans because the meaning of life is to make others happy. Dogs fulfill that very quickly and so are very content.”

    That is proof enough as to why dogs can really help folks that are feeling down. They have a serenity about them deep down we find hard to achieve ourselves.

  • Roxie

    July 20th, 2011 at 9:46 PM

    @anthony dalton: The article agrees with you at the end of the first paragraph. Man and dog have been friends since we were living in caves and chasing down mammoths for food.

    Some who are in therapy are in there because of humans, and it’s perfectly acceptable for humans to distrust those of their own species if they have suffered from abuse. I know plenty that would trust a pooch over a person.

  • Leigh Metcalfe

    July 20th, 2011 at 10:05 PM

    All animals have that effect on someone one way or another. They were made to be companions of humans and they do their job well don’t they? There are some people who simply don’t like dogs but that’s rare in my experience. How anyone can dislike a wagging tail and smiley face amazes me. :) I’ve been a dog lover all my life and won’t ever change. Life is so much richer when you have one in it.

  • D. Duncan

    July 20th, 2011 at 10:18 PM

    It’s such a shame all the nursing homes I see have a no pets policy. If you’re not going to be at the beck and call of the elderly when their family isn’t around, you should let them bring small pets like their cats or budgies provided they take responsibility for them and keep them under control and out of common areas.

  • fletcher

    July 21st, 2011 at 8:37 AM

    pets and dogs in particular have helped me deal with loneliness in the I can confidently say that they are a gr8 means to help people deal with their issues.

    further,the element of human competition is absent when its a dog that is helping you in your tasks in therapy.a great idea this certainly is!

  • Kelly

    July 21st, 2011 at 9:27 AM

    I love dogs but lets not forget the healing power of cats. Yes dogs are certianly more appropriate for a social setting but personally speaking my cats have saved my life – I experienced a sever bought with depression several years ago and my cats were at my side every moment of every day. They were so attentive and caring, they would lay next to me and make sure they had bodily contact even if it was just their pay on my arm or hand. My boy cat would even put his paws on my face as if to say “remember I am right here”. Animals should be a part of healing practices 100%

  • Ellen L

    November 18th, 2015 at 1:11 PM

    I completely agree with you, Kelly. Cats are seemingly excluded from consideration as therapy animals, perhaps due to their reputation as being aloof, untrainable, and the like. I have owned six cats in my lifetime, none of whom could ever be thought of as aloof or “cold”. Every one of these cats has been warm, cuddly, affectionate, and sensitive to my moods and feelings. My one remaining cat, Peabody, has been all over me over the past month or so, because he’s sensed that I’m sad, depressed, and afraid because circumstances in my life are not good now.

    One of my other cats, Pippin, would come to me if I were sobbing in ny chair, jump up on my lap, and with one paw would pat my tears away. I suppose skeptics might say that Pippin simply liked the salty taste of my tears, but I don’t believe that’s all there was to it. I could tell more stories about all my cats, but this reply would be extremely long!

    Particularly for the elderly and/or disabled, who cannot walk and exercise a dog, cats make wonderful therapists. Another person could do the related tasks, such as feeding, cleaning out litterboxes, and the like. The cats provide loving companionship without hesitation, and can keep the person healthier. Recent studies in scientific journals have reported that the cat’s purr is at a level that helps the human body heal, and can lower one’s heart rate and blood pressure. So why not provide therapy cats to those who need them?


    July 21st, 2011 at 1:57 PM

    10,000 therapy dogs? Wow. I never knew they were using dogs in such a late scale in therapy.heck,I’ve only heard of dogs in therapy once before this.

    Also I have a question-are these therapy dogs used only for some particular problems or can they be used in therapy for just about anythin?

  • Rick

    July 21st, 2011 at 8:00 PM

    I use my Papillon Zoe in therapy sessions (with the client’s permission) and she tells me a great deal about the client as soon as they walk in the door!

  • lori

    July 22nd, 2011 at 6:22 AM

    Dogs are awesome. They want to please us as much as we want to please them, and sometimes I think that they want to give back to us even more than we want to give them. My parents had a Lab and I swear that dog was more in tune with what was going on in our lives than we were sometimes!

  • Natalie M

    July 25th, 2011 at 4:33 AM

    It continually amazes me just how beautiful and special these four legged animals can be. Think about it. They have not had the years and years of training that many therapists have had- yes they have had training but not like this. But then look at the big difference that they can make in a patient’s life. They can make you smile when nothing else can and can help you learn to leave the bad things behind. I know that my own dogs are special but I also know that there are others out there making such a HUGE difference, and that really makes me smile.

  • Bridget E.

    March 15th, 2015 at 7:58 PM

    I am interested in reading some actual scientific studies on the benefits of therapy dogs. I want to use them in a workshop I am presenting in April. Please direct me to any website which might be able to help me in this endeavor.
    Thank you,
    Bridget E.

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