What Do Therapy Dogs Actually Do? An Interview with Monica Callahan (10 Years of Therapy Dog Work) | Pupford
December 6th, 2023
Filed under Podcasts
While most of us have heard the term ‘therapy dog’, what therapy dogs actually do remains a bit of a mystery to many!
In this episode, I’ll be interviewing Monica Callahan to help us all gain a true understanding of what therapy dogs really do and how they improve lives everywhere!
MEET MONICA CALLAHAN
Monica Callahan has been a professional dog trainer for over 10 years and graduated from the Karen Pryor Academy in 2012. She is currently serving on the Board of Directors for the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. She is a current rally judge for the C-WAGS organization. In 2021, she graduated from the prestigious licensing program, Family Paws. Family Paws is geared toward working with families who are welcoming babies into families with dogs or continuing to keep toddlers and children safe and dog aware.
Monica also runs her own dog training business, Family Fido Dog Training. Monica helped start the MYR Airport P.E.T.S. therapy dog program in December of 2021. On top of all of that, The Hero Dogs was started by Monica and her husband to showcase the therapy work they do for first responders and crisis response.
CONNECT WITH MONICA
Monica’s Website: https://familyfidotraining.com/
Family Fido Instagram: @familyfido
Family Fido Facebook: @familyfidotraining
Hero Dogs TikTok: @thehero.dogs
Hero Dogs Instagram: @The.Hero.Dogs
Hero Dogs Facebook: @theherodogs
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HOW MONICA GOT HER START WITH THERAPY DOGS
Like many dog enthusiasts and trainers, Monica’s intro to therapy dogs began with her own dog.
As she started raising her first dog of her own, she worked closely with a trainer with experience in therapy dog work. Her trainer mentioned that her pup had a good temperament for therapy work, and the rest is history!
She’s been working with, helping train, and serving the therapy dog world ever since.
WHAT IS THE ALLIANCE OF THERAPY DOGS?
Monica is also the Director for Alliance of Therapy Dogs.
Like most things in life, having a support group to help in your endeavors makes therapy dog work much easier!
The role of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs is:
“We are an international registry of certified therapy dog teams. At ATD, we provide testing, certification, registration, support, and insurance for members who volunteer with their dogs in animal-assisted activities. Our objective is to form a network of caring individuals and their special dogs are willing to share smiles and joy with people, young and old alike.”
Alliance of Therapy Dogs helps prospective therapy dogs and their humans with things like certifications, guidance, and support.
Plus, with certification through ATD, you’re covered by their liability insurance which is vital for therapy dog work!
Related Reading: Pet Insurance 101 - How to Choose Pet Insurance
WHAT DOES THE THERAPY DOG CERTIFICATION PROCESS LOOK LIKE?
Monica stressed that one reason she loves and believes so strongly in the Alliance of Therapy Dogs is because of their testing and certification process!
Many other tests and certifications are strictly behavior-based, but ATD’s certification process chooses to focus on the handler and dog relationship and temperament.
Monica emphasized that this type of certification process helps to more effectively approve only the dogs that can truly handle therapy dog work.
Of course, there are behaviors your dog should have a solid understanding of to become a therapy dog. Here are some things your dog should be able to do:
- Loose leash walking
- Responsiveness to a handler, even in distracting situations
- Not jumping when greeted
- Not jumping when greeting someone sitting down (as is common in a therapy work situation)
- Not being startled by people rushing by (ie, nurses down a busy hospital hall)
Monica recommends ensuring that your dog could pass the Canine Good Citizen test as part of their therapy dog training!
As part of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs’ certification process, dogs are required to go through three different on-site (ie, senior citizens' home, hospital, etc.) observations to ensure their capabilities.
WHAT DOES A THERAPY DOG DO & WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?
While there isn’t one specific task a therapy dog does, their general role is to provide affection, comfort, and support to people in need.
This can be done in a variety of ways and in a variety of scenarios.
Here are some places where therapy dogs often do their work. ⬇️
- Nursing homes
- Disaster areas
- Police & fire stations (more on that later)
- Libraries and more
Here are some of the specific things a therapy dog might do during their work. ⏬
- Be pet by people
- Play simple games with people
- Snuggle & cuddle with people
- Be groomed by people (especially those in rehabilitative situations working to improve or re-learn motor skills)
- Simply, be near people needing support and comfort
As you can see, the therapy “work” isn’t often hard labor and intensive work, like other working dogs (ie, search & rescue, bomb-sniffing dogs, etc.).
The role of a therapy dog is to comfort and support people in need, and it is often as simple as being by their side and engaging with the human!
BENEFITS OF THERAPY DOGS
As far back as Florence Nightingale’s time, a belief that dogs can improve humans’ mental health has existed.
And while most of us think of the psychological benefits of therapy dogs, there can also be cognitive, physical, and social benefits.
Many libraries and schools have tested programs that have struggling (or just learning) readers to read aloud to therapy dogs. They’ve found that many children (or adults) thrive in their reading when they can read to a non-judgmental listener, a dog!
Other studies have found that children with insecure attachment styles and children with autistic spectrum disorder showed lower levels of cortisol (stress hormone) when exposed to dogs and/or having dogs in their homes.
Some children, especially those with autism, have even shown improvements in verbal abilities and social interaction when therapy sessions were conducted with a dog present.
These are just a few examples of the benefits of therapy dogs, and there are certainly plenty more instances where therapy pups have helped people needing comfort!
Dogs are AMAZING creatures! Therapy dogs really just tap into their natural ability to soothe and comfort others in need.
WHAT DO YOUR DOGS, THE HERO DOGS, DO SPECIFICALLY?
Monica has multiple therapy dogs who do some amazing work (be sure to check out their page, The Hero Dogs, to see them in action)!
An interesting piece of their work is visiting first responders in their workplace to provide much-needed peace and comfort. They visit fire stations, police stations, and will even visit scenes where first responders are needing extra comfort in the form of a loving dog!
Monica also helped start the Myrtle Beach Airport Therapy Dog Program! Many travelers experience high levels of stress, and Monica and her dogs are able to provide them relief in the form of some pup love.
They typically visit the airport once a week and roam the terminals engaging with travelers. According to Monica, it’s an extremely enjoyable experience to see travelers go from stressed or anxious to more calm and happy!
IF SOMEONE WANTS THEIR DOG TO BE A THERAPY DOG, WHERE SHOULD THEY START?
If you’re like me while I was interviewing Monica, you might be thinking - how can I get involved?
Monica provided some great insight on where you can start if you’d like your dog to become a therapy dog. Here are some of her thoughts below!
First, really consider if your dog would enjoy it… Try getting them out there into public spaces and seeing if they are comfortable with being pet, greeting others, etc.
Some dogs LOVE attention and enjoy providing affection to strangers, other dogs just don’t. And that’s okay! Monica stressed paying attention to your dog’s body language and demeanor as they engage with strangers in public settings.
If you decide your pup has the temperament and desire, you’ve gotta make sure their behavior is in line with becoming a therapy dog!
Your dog should be able to nail the basics like loose leash walking, not jumping, calm greetings, etc.
On that note, if you’re looking for help with some of the basics of dog training, be sure to sign up for 30 Day Perfect Pup! It’s a 100% free (no credit card required) online dog training class that covers behaviors like jumping, leash walking, biting/chewing, and even potty training. Sign up for free here!
Another thing you’ll want to be sure of is that your relationship and communication is top-notch with your pup. You, the handler, will also be a part of your dog’s therapy work! So, make sure you can communicate well with your pup, enjoy being around strangers, and can handle the ins and outs of therapy dog work.
WHAT IS ONE THING YOU WISH EVERYONE UNDERSTOOD ABOUT THERAPY DOGS?
Not to my surprise, Monica wanted to stress the importance of understanding the difference between therapy, service, and emotional support animals.
Here is a very very brief overview of the differences.
Therapy Dogs: Provide comfort, support, and love to people in stressful, challenging, or difficult situations. They visit places with their own handler to provide support to others. While there are certifications, it is not required in all instances.
Therapy dogs do not have extra access rights to places like restaurants, flights, etc.
Service Dogs: Help a person perform specific tasks they are unable to do on their own. This can be guide dogs, seizure recognition, opening doors, etc. that the human is not able to perform.
Emotional Support Dogs: Emotional support dogs provide help to their humans with different psychological needs. That can be anxiety, depression, loneliness, and other mental-health-related instances. They may be trained for a specific owner, but they are not trained for specific tasks or duties to aid a person with a disability, and this is the main difference between ESAs and service dogs. Emotional support dogs must be prescribed by a mental health professional or doctor to be considered an emotional support dog.
Emotional support dogs do not have extra access rights, but the Fair Housing Act does state that “reasonable accommodation” be provided for emotional support animals, even in housing that does not allow pets. As of the beginning of 2021, airlines no longer have to accommodate emotional support animals on flights.
That is certainly a VERY basic overview of the differences between these 3 types of dogs, but hopefully provides some insight into what each does!
As a note, I recommend reading through the government’s website information about the Americans with Disabilities Act to more fully understand the topic.
RECAP OF WHAT THERAPY DOGS DO
Therapy dogs complete the amazing work of providing support, comfort, and affection to people in need. This can be done in places such as hospitals, airports, schools, and hospice centers.
Many studies and anecdotal evidence has shown the power and value of therapy dogs in improving the lives of people in need.
If you’re interested in taking steps for your dog to become a therapy dog, the Alliance of Therapy Dogs is a fantastic resource! And if your pup becoming a therapy dog is your goal, be sure to sign up for the 30 Day Perfect Pup course (free) to help lay the foundations for a well-mannered pup!
Have you had experiences with therapy dogs? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!