The Therapy Dog: What is the Purpose?

What is a therapy dog? How is that different from a service dog or an emotional support animal? Well, it turns out that there is a fairly simple distinction for specific situations. We all can recognize that there are many factors at play when an animal gains certain autonomy and is designated for any particular task; whether that task has a “therapy,” “service,” or “emotional support” designation.

Today, I will be discussing the use of animals as a therapeutic agent and the inherent paradox of using animals for assisted varieties of therapy. This paradox exists simply based on the fundamental role of the human/animal bond. This bond works in dramatic fashion and can seem simple; however, the bond between human and animals can be as diverse as the whole of the animal population. All of this information and rhetoric about animal-assisted therapy (AAT) began to coalesce once I started to research this dynamic and heavily debated topic. Historically, animals have played a part in human health, whether there was an awareness of the implications for human emotional health or not. For example, in the 19th century, Florence Nightingale suggested a bird might be the primary source of pleasure for persons confined to the same room due to medical problems (McConnell, 2002).

I should also disclose that my own personal bias regarding this topic is based from my training as a Veterinary Technician which I take seriously and is the framework for my interpretation of all the available information regarding animal-assisted therapy. I have and will likely maintain my partiality for animal welfare and the broader concept of mental health for the animal-assisted therapy team, especially the canine participant.

In Oklahoma, the classification of a “therapy” animal is a dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, and to people with learning difficulties (F.A.S.T., 2014). Therapy animals can be any breed, size, or gender; H.A.L.O requirements exist due to the profound awareness of what animal-assisted therapy can do for underserved populations and in response to natural disasters. This level of distinction is why H.A.L.O. feels strongly that the working team, the person as well as the dog, are important to fulfilling the role of constructive animal-assisted therapy. Cats and mini-horses (Yes, mini horses!) are also used in animal-assisted therapy but to a much lesser extent then canine participants.

The dissimilarity from therapy animals can best be designated as an “emotional support” animal or a “service” animal; there are special distinctions with each group. The “emotional support” animals are defined as a ‘dog or other common domestic animal that provides therapeutic support to a person or elderly person who is disabled. The support can come in the form of companionship, non-judgmental positive regard, affection, and a focus in life.’ In contrast, a “service” animal is defined as a ‘dog (and miniature horses) that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.’ The “service” animal also has the unique distinction of being recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and generally “service” animals must be allowed to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go (F.A.S.T., 2014).

Despite these rhetorical differences, animals in countless shapes, sizes, and in different scenarios have made an affirmative and some would say life altering impact for all the participating members.  AAT has been used with individuals across the lifespan, including children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly (Nimer, 2007). Within the Human Animal Link of Oklahoma (H.A.L.O.) organization, animal-assisted therapy means that ‘we believe our pets are a driving force leading human beings of all ages, maybe for the first time ever, into experiencing a calm, no strings attached, sincere relationship.’
-Terri Smith, Founder and CEO.

  Jennifer Swann R.V.T., B.S., M.P.A.

  Human Animal Link of Oklahoma Foundation

  Blog Post

  November 1, 2017


Human Animal Link of Oklahoma Foundation (H.A.L.O.)  http://www.yourhalofoundation.org.

Terri Smith-Author

Functional Assessment Support Team (F.A.S.T.). Access and Functional Needs Populations. 2014.

McConnell, E. 2002. Myths and facts…about animal assisted therapy. Nursing 32(3): 76.

Nimer, J. and Lundahl, B. Animal-Assisted Therapy: A Meta Analysis. Anthrozoos. Volume 20, Issue 3, pg. 225-238.

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"Our monthly therapy sessions with the H.A.L.O. is one that our students at Surrey Hills Elementary look forward to. To see the students with exceptionalities interact with Mona and Suzi these past four years has been inspiring! Therefore, it has led me to advocate dog therapy for all students in the general population at our facility."-Yeneer Oruru, Yukon Public Schools 

“I am fortunate enough to see the consistent encouragement, support, and positive experiences our H.A.L.O. teams leave patients, visitors, and co-workers with each week. I consider our organization incredibly blessed to have such hard-working and passionate H.A.L.O. teams volunteering their time to bring countless smiles on each face they come in contact with. Co-workers know each of these Handlers and Therapy Dogs by name, and I know I can count on them for off-the-wall requests at the drop of the hat. It is impossible to repay them for the goodness they bring into our hospital each week!”- Dalton Cordell, MBA
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"H.A.L.O. has been such a wonderful organization to be a part of. Individuals are supportive of the teams and are always there to encourage and assist with any needs that may arise." -Lindsay Hammond, Marley's Handler- Bartlesville Schools

"This particular quote of Mother Teresa perfectly describes my experience with H.A.L.O. 'Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.'" -Cheryl Spiva, Kasper's Handler-Integris, Will Rogers World Airport, Oklahoma Schools and Universities

"It is a privilege to be a part of the H.A.L.O. family. Berlin and I are blessed to share the pup love with friends we make when out in service." -Joey Niebrugge, Berlin's Handler- Epworth at Home Hospice, Children's Hospital-OU Health

"Since teaming up with H.A.L.O. here are a few things that have improved within our SPED classrooms. Recorded benefits include improvements in attendance, student problem-solving abilities, and improved calmness. One of the most significant impacts that has occurred while adding one of H.A.L.O.'s therapy dogs in the classroom is student socio-emotional development.  We are so pleased and will be adding more time slots with the school to share the experiences with more students." -Paula Elliot, Special Education Teacher, Oakdale Public School

"When college life bears itself sometimes cold and lonely, H.A.L.O. dogs come to restore with warm furry hugs and licks of love!  SNU is beyond grateful for Terri, all the H.A.L.O. volunteers, and the unconditional love the dogs bring to our campus!" -Tabitha Pope, Director of Disability Services,
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"The Down Syndrome Association of Central Oklahoma loves H.A.L.O.! The handlers and pups are always smiling and bring so much joy to our community. Our families now look for the yellow vests at our events. Thank you, H.A.L.O, for always going above and beyond to help DSACO spread acceptance, respect, and inclusion for all! Terri - Your teams are the best of the best! Thank you for being their fearless leader and know you and H.A.L.O. are making such a positive impact on the community!" -Rylee Cole, Program Assistant, Down Syndrome Association of Central Oklahoma

“The day that kids come to our facility is likely one of the hardest days of their lives. H.A.L.O. volunteers put a smile on the kids' faces and help them relax before having to talk about abuse they have experienced. I have seen them make a difference in a child’s day time and time again. Our organization and children are so thankful.”  -Hailey McClain, Guest Experience Manager, The CARE Center

"My involvement as a handler with my gal, LuLu, was one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences of my adult life.  Lu knew how to approach each student, parent or faculty member and give each one exactly what was needed in the moment and touched countless lives.  I was merely her transportation." -Becky Bish, Handler of Lulu, Elementary School Secretary, YPS Schools

"‘How beautiful it is to find someone who asks for nothing but your company”  and maybe a treat.  The teams that visit our staff and patients bring more joy that we can put into words." -Kristi J. Medley, Volunteer Services Coordinator, Integris

"Our weekly events with the H.A.L.O. dogs are one of our most popular and well attended events each semester.  To see the students petting and relaxing with the dogs, getting a break from their hectic lives of school and work brightens everyone’s Thursday each week." -Jeffrey Musslewhite, University of Central Oklahoma

"Eric and Timber came and spoke at our seminary. (Eric did most of the talking!) We were very interested in his work with Timber as a therapy dog, but we received so much more.  We saw an example of passion and following one's call in life. It was a profound experience!" -Alanna Ireland, OKC Campus Coordinator

"As soon as anyone walks through our doors and sees our therapy dogs, victims and staff alike, a huge smile breaks out and you forget for a moment whatever weight you were bringing in. Their presence is a deep comfort in a place where you come in to talk about difficult things. We are very thankful to have both Willa and Bear in our courthouses to bridge the gap between fear and trust." - Alexis White, Public Information Officer, District 21 District Attorney’s Office, Handler Amber Dodson with Willa; Handler Jonathan Fried with Bear

“Our staff and residents are waiting each week with great anticipation for our wonderful H.A.L.O. teams to come visit. They seem to calm our residents and some of them ask to be able to hold them in their laps. As the coordinator of our Volunteer program, I’m so very grateful for H.A.L.O. and the excellent program they provide.” -Adrian V Martin, Hospice Chaplain/Bereavement Coordinator

"I have been a veterinarian for over 32 years and have been a volunteer veterinarian with the prison dog program Friends for Folks for over 26 years. I have also volunteered at Norman Animal Welfare for 31 years and my passion is celebrating the human animal bond. H.A.L.O. is an excellent program with whom I have worked with for the past several years. Most of the therapy dogs I have worked with have been certified through the H.A.L.O. program. Terri Smith does an excellent job and her background in mental health makes her an excellent administrator of the program! I can’t say enough about the great work they do and highly recommend them to anyone considering having their pet certified as a therapy pet.  Please feel to reach out to me if you have any questions."- John Otto, DVM

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