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Therapy dogs come in all sizes and breeds. The most important characteristic of a therapy dog is its temperament. A good therapy dog must be friendly, patient, confident, gentle, and at ease in all situations. Therapy dogs must enjoy human contact and be content to be petted and handled, sometimes clumsily.
A therapy dog's primary job is to allow unfamiliar people to make physical contact with it and to enjoy that contact. Children in particular enjoy hugging animals; adults usually enjoy simply petting the dog. The dog might need to be lifted onto, or climb onto, an individual's lap or bed and sit or lie comfortably there. Many dogs contribute to the visiting experience by performing small tricks for their audience or by playing carefully structured games. In hospice environments, therapy dogs can play a role in palliative care by reducing death anxiety.
During World War II, under combat operations against Japanese forces on the island of New Guinea, Corporal William Wynne came into possession of a young adult Yorkshire Terrier abandoned on the battlefield. He named the female dog Smoky.
Smoky accompanied Wynne on numerous combat missions, provided comfort and entertainment for troops, and even assisted the Signal Corps in running a telegraph cable through an underground pipe, completing in minutes what might have been a dangerous, three-day construction job which would have exposed men and equipment to enemy bombers.
Smoky's service as a therapy dog began when Corporal Wynne was hospitalized for a jungle disease. As Wynne recovered, Wynne's Army pals brought Smoky to the hospital for a visit and to cheer the soldier up. Smoky immediately became a hit with the other wounded soldiers. Dr. Charles Mayo, of the famed Mayo Clinic, was the commanding officer who allowed Smoky to go on rounds and also permitted her to sleep with Wynne in his hospital bed for five nights. Smoky’s work as a therapy dog continued for 12 years, during and after World War II.
The establishment of a systematic approach to the use of therapy dogs is attributed to Elaine Smith, an American who worked as a registered nurse for a time in England. Smith noticed how well patients responded to visits by a certain chaplain and his canine companion, a Golden Retriever. Upon returning to the United States in 1976, Smith started a program for training dogs to visit institutions. Over the years other health care professionals have noticed the therapeutic effect of animal companionship, such as relieving stress, lowering blood pressure, and raising spirits, and the demand for therapy dogs continues to grow. In recent years, therapy dogs have been enlisted to help children overcome speech and emotional disorders.
In 1982, Nancy Stanley founded Tender Loving Zoo (TLZ), a nonprofit organization that introduced animal therapy to severely handicapped children and to convalescent hospitals for the elderly. She got the idea while working at the Los Angeles Zoo, where she noticed how handicapped visitors responded eagerly to animals. She researched the beneficial effects that animals can have on patients and soon thereafter, Ms. Stanley began taking her pet miniature poodle, Freeway, to the Revere Developmental Center for the severely handicapped.
Inspired by the response of the patients and the encouragement of the staff, she took $7,500 of her own money, bought a van, recruited helpers, and persuaded a pet store to lend baby animals. Soon requests for TLZ were coming from schools, hospitals and convalescent homes all over the county. Partly as a result of Ms. Stanley's work, the concept of dog-therapy has broadened to "animal-assisted therapy" or "pet therapy", including many other species, such as therapy cats, therapy rabbits, therapy birds and so on.
A body of research has suggested that interactions with therapy dogs can temporarily affect the release of various neurotransmitters in the brain; oxytocin (a chemical heavily linked with bonding) and dopamine (a chemical associated with reward and motivation) levels are increased, while lowering cortisol levels (an immunosuppressant associated with stress).
Therapy dogs are usually not service or assistance dogs but can be if designated as such for people with PTSD. Service dogs perform tasks for persons with disabilities and have a legal right to accompany their owners in most areas. In the United States, service dogs are legally protected at the federal level by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Therapy dogs are not trained to assist specific individuals and do not qualify as service dogs under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Institutions may invite, limit, or prohibit access by therapy dogs. If allowed, many institutions have rigorous requirements for therapy dogs.
Many organizations provide evaluation and registration for therapy dogs. In the United States, some organizations require that a dog pass the equivalent of the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen test and then add further requirements specific to the environments in which the dogs will be working. Other organizations have their own testing requirements. Typical tests might ensure that a dog can handle sudden loud or strange noises; can walk on assorted unfamiliar surfaces comfortably; are not frightened by people with canes, wheelchairs, or unusual styles of walking or moving; get along well with children and with the elderly; and so on.
In Canada, St John Ambulance provides therapy dog certification.
In the UK Pets As Therapy (PAT) provides visiting dogs and cats to establishments where pets are otherwise not available.
Colleges and universities across the United States bring therapy dogs to campus during midterm and final exam weeks to help students de-stress, relax, and smile. These campus events are often referred to as "Therapy Fluffies," a term coined by Torrey Trust, the original founder of the UC San Diego therapy dog de-stress event.
In 2009, Sharon Franks, the Director of Research Proposal Development Service at UC San Diego, shared the idea of bringing therapy dogs to campus with the UC San Diego Office of Student Wellness. Torrey Trust, the Student Wellness Program Coordinator for the Office of Student Wellness, took the lead in bringing the event to UC San Diego during spring quarter final exams week in June 2009.
Similar events have been held worldwide.
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