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October 03, 2022

Service and therapy dogs can be helpful companions; here's how to know which is right for you

Interacting with man's best friend can boost physical and mental health, research shows

Prevention Dogs
Service dogs Brian Wangenheim/Unsplash

Service, therapy and support dogs can have positive impacts on our physical and mental health. However, not all of these terms are the same. Each of these types of animals play specific roles for different people.

Dogs are irrefutably man's best friend. Not only do they shower us with love and affection, they also can help protect our physical and mental well-being.

While research on human-animal interactions is still relatively new, some studies have shown that it can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure, reduce loneliness and increase feelings of social support.

Current research also is studying how animal interactions can help kids with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions.

Dogs especially have been found to be loving companions who can reduce stress and anxiety of hospital and nursing home patients. They can even be trained to perform certain duties to help people with disabilities, such as blindness, deafness or seizure disorders.

If your health care provider is recommending that you or your child get a therapy or service dog, or an emotional support animal, it's important to understand the differences between these furry companions.

A service dog is certified and trained to help people with physical and mental disabilities. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals are working animals like police dogs, not pets. A service dog must be able to complete tasks that their handler can not complete themselves.

By law, service dogs must be allowed into businesses and it's illegal for someone to ask about your disability. Service dog registration is not required by the ADA, but it is a good idea to keep documentation with you just in case you are challenged. If your service dog is trained for psychiatric issues, you may be required to supply a doctor's note for airline travel and certain public areas, according to the Canine Journal.

A therapy dog is trained to bring comfort and affection to people in hospitals, hospice, nursing homes, schools and disaster areas. Studies have shown that spending time with a therapy dog can lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce anxiety and increase mood-boosting hormones such as endorphins and oxytocins.

Therapy dogs don't have to be trained to perform a specific task, but they should be naturally calm and affectionate to strangers and trained to be obedient. Dog trainers recommend enrolling your dog in a therapy class and registering them with a national therapy dog organization, such as the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

An emotional support animal does not require specific training or certification. It naturally provides emotional support simply through companionship. However, it is not protected under the ADA and isn't allowed access to all public areas. They usually do qualify for no-housing, although you may need to present a physician's letter. Emotional support animals used to be able to fly with their companion with documentation, but since December 2020, airlines are no longer required to allow them to fly in the cabin with their person.

Service and therapy dogs have been found to be particularly helpful for children with autism, but how do you know which type is best for your particular situation?

Autism is a developmental disorder that's characterized mostly by difficulties with social interactions and communication skills. It's usually diagnosed in childhood and can affect people to varying degrees.

Early indicators of autism include the inability to make eye contact or form facial expressions, difficulties communicating and expressing emotions, and a sensitivity to light, sound, touch or taste. Some children on the autism spectrum also exhibit repetitive behaviors like rocking, spinning or hand-flapping.

An autism service dog can accompany a child during medical or dental visits, school activities, shopping and travel to decrease anxiety. Some autism service dogs are trained to recognize and gently interrupt self-harming behaviors or help de-escalate an emotional meltdown by leaning against the child or gently laying across his or her lap.

Some families have also found having a therapy dog at home to be a calming influence on their child and help encourage more social interaction. While not all therapy dogs have special training, most do. However, they do not have federally mandated access to public places.

The experts at Autism Speaks say that a well-trained family pet can also be a wonderful calming influence for someone who has autism. Walking the dog can provide exercise, teach responsibility and other practical skills. It also can encourage social interaction with people they might meet while walking their dog.

The most important thing to remember is that not all children with autism see improvements with a furry companion. Whether a service dog, therapy dog, or emotional support animal will be the best match for your child and your family is a completely individualized decision, experts say.

In a recent study published in Behavior Analysis in Practice, researchers found that not all kids with autism are motivated by therapy dogs to complete tasks and learn new skills.

“The key is to find out what motivates a child with autism, whether it’s playing with a therapy dog or a favorite toy,” study author Emma Keicher, an applied behavior analyst at the University of Missouri's Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, told U.S. News & World Report.

For the study, six boys ages 4 to 9 with autism were told if they completed certain tasks their reward would be playtime with a therapy dog or some other form of entertainment, such as playing with toys.

Two boys enjoyed playing with the dog the most, while two of the boys remained indifferent to the dog and mostly played with the toys. Two of the boys didn’t want to play with the dog at all.

“Before you bring a dog home, make sure your child enjoys playing with dogs,” Keicher said.

Positive reinforcement, which is a recommended strategy for parents of a child with autism, can happen in many ways. It doesn't have to be playtime with a dog. It could be smiles, high fives or a fun treat or activity.

If you are considering getting a therapy or service dog, experts recommend working with an accredited dog agency to ensure the proper training was received.

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