Dogs were the first animal to be domesticated: they gradually became so accustomed to living in such close proximity to humans that it became safe to welcome them into human homes and communities.

But what happened to dogs as soon as they were tamed? Over time, dogs were bred to perform all sorts of actions, almost always in conjunction with humans. Some dogs hunted, going after prey animals which they and their humans could then eat. Some dogs served as guardians and protectors of the home or of the community. Some dogs herded and watched over farm animals.

Dogs still do all those things today, and in fact, the list of tasks entrusted to them keeps getting longer. Different kinds of police dogs perform different tasks related to law enforcement, while different kinds of military dogs work alongside human soldiers in wartime and peacetime. These kinds of dogs get decorations for meritorious service just as their human counterparts do, and their stories go viral so we hear all about them on the news.

In modern times, however, the canine limelight is shared with an entirely different group of working dogs: the ones who work in homes, schools, hospitals, courtrooms, and other institutions to ensure the well-being of the people around them.

The terminology can be confusing, so let’s begin with a quick series of definitions.

Therapy animals, including therapy dogs, cats, horses, and other animals, are active performers in what is referred to as “animal-assisted therapy.” In this form of therapy, the animals work with patients in order to help them regain or improve social, emotional, or cognitive functioning. They can increase the rapport between patients and therapists, and help patients relax and become more receptive to the idea of positive change and healing.

Service animals are trained for the express purpose of providing companionship and assistance to persons with disabilities. Again, dogs are the most common type of animal working in this capacity, although cats, birds, horses, ferrets, and monkeys have also been trained to become service animals. The presence of a service animal can help a person with a disability navigate the world with more independence and ease than if he or she had been alone.

Emotional support animals also provide assistance and companionship to persons with disabilities. The difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal lies in the presence or absence of training. For example, a guide dog, one of the most well-known types of service animal, is explicitly trained to lead people who are blind or visually-impaired around any obstacles in their way. The exact same dog who has not received guide dog training would be more correctly characterized as an emotional support animal.

Service animals literally go to school so that they can learn about all the ways in which they can assist people with disabilities, while emotional support animals provide companionship and a constant presence without necessarily having to receive the same rigorous training. Finally, therapy dogs may or may not receive training, but the important thing is that they are receptive to being touched or handled by even complete strangers.

The idea of the therapy dog goes all the way back to the roots of psychoanalysis, when Sigmund Freud found that his patients responded positively to the presence of his Chow Chow. The dog helped create a relaxing atmosphere, which allowed patients to confide more easily in Freud, and to pay more attention to his suggestions.

It is no surprise, then, that therapy dogs do a lot of their work in the healthcare context. In the Philippines, for example, the Philippine Animal Welfare Society’s Dr. Dog program enlists dogs of an outgoing and placid temperament to make the rounds of various hospital wards and places that provide long-term care. It is believed that the presence of these dogs can cheer up patients and help them develop a more positive outlook on life–which can then have salutary effects on their health.

But therapy dogs are not just restricted to the hospital. In the United States, for example, therapy dogs work in courtrooms in some states in order to provide a calm environment and emotional stability. The dogs may accompany children who are being asked to testify before a judge and a jury, or victims of sexual assault who need the steady and comforting presence of the dog in order to tell their stories.

Back in the Philippines, a group known as CommuniTails brought dogs to a noted private university during the mid-term examinations, in order to give the stressed-out students a brief breather. It is hoped that the Bring Your Own Dog event may be repeated on a yearly or semestral basis, so that students may continue to have a chance to relax even when they’re in the middle of mid-term tests.

Therapy dogs belong in the library, too, as public libraries in the United States have proven. In Richmond, California, the public library is conducting a literacy program that teaches kids to improve their reading skills by having them read books with–and in many cases to–dogs provided by the Animal Rescue Foundation. It’s said that because the dogs don’t pass judgment on the children when they make mistakes, the children become more confident in their reading skills.

With the help of therapy dogs, we can make the world a better place, one wagging tail and one paw-print at a time.



This appeared in Animal Scene’s December 2016 issue.