A therapy dog is a dog which has been specially trained to offer companionship, affection, and comfort. These special canines are brought into hospitals, nursing homes, mental facilities, prisons, schools, and disaster areas to provide their unique services to people who might be in need of a friendly face and a connection with an animal. A number of organizations offer therapy dogs to facilities which request them, along with training and volunteer opportunities for dog owners who would like to use their pets as therapy dogs.
It is important to remember that a therapy dog is not a service animal, in the sense of an animal which provides assistance and service to the disabled. In many countries, service animals are protected, ensuring that their owners can take them with them wherever they go without harassment. Service animals may act as guides for the blind, pull wheelchairs, or provide other services, and they are licensed, registered animals who provide assistance to only one individual. Training for service animals is extremely rigorous and unique to the service that the animal provides.
A therapy dog is trained to be patient, kind, friendly, and gentle with a wide variety of people in an assortment of circumstances. Therapy dogs are taught to bear clumsy handling with good graces, and to work well with people who may be under stress or upset. A wide range of breeds can be used as therapy dogs, as long as the individual specimen is calm, friendly, and responsive to training.
At a minimum, a therapy dog visits a facility and interacts with people who may be missing companionship. In this case, therapy dogs might sit quietly with people, or play gently. In other cases, therapy dogs get more interactive, performing tricks or playing more advanced games with the people that they visit. In all cases, a therapy dog's handler accompanies him or her, and the handler may gently instruct the people who interact with the dog, especially if they are unfamiliar with animals.
The use of animals in therapy dates back to at least the 1970s, although people were undoubtedly aware of the value of animal companionship before this period. Therapy dogs were the first therapy animals, but it is also possible to find therapy cats, horses, rabbits, sheep, and even chickens. The use of animals as therapeutic companions appears to help people relax, work out stress, and feel more comfortable in their environment, whether it be a hospital bed or a federal prison.
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