Most people think of the work of therapy dogs as visits to a nursing home or hospital, spending time with those who need companionship or a little fun. This is the job of many therapy dogs, but they can also provide additional services. Two additional types of therapy work have been defined: animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy.
Therapy work categorized as Animal-Assisted Activities includes visits with nursing home residents or hospital patients, but it can also include group activities. In these group situations, interaction with the dog is encouraged along with discussion among the members of the group. A dog can provide lots of conversation fodder by performing agility stunts, obedience demonstrations, or simply by being a cute, well-behaved animal.
When dogs are used as part of a formal treatment program, it is called Animal-Assisted Therapy. Dogs can be trained to help with physical, speech, or cognitive rehabilitation. Patients in physical rehabilitation can engage in games with dogs that help to improve their dexterity and mobility, while patients with brain injuries can participate in activities with dogs to help their cognitive abilities. The activity may be something as simple as playing fetch with the dog, but it may be extremely helpful for the patient.
A dog that is a good candidate for being a therapy dog will be well socialized and enjoy attention. He should not be shy, fearful, easily annoyed, or aggressive. Even a dog with a perfect temperament will require some training before he can become a therapy dog. He will need to be able to sit nicely for brushing and/or petting, get along well with other dogs, and be comfortable around wheelchairs and other medical equipment.
The owner of a potential therapy dog should also meet certain requirements. You need to know how to conduct yourself with the facility staff and residents. You also need to be committed to the activity on whatever schedule you decide upon, so as not to disappoint the residents or patients.