Pet Therapy: Is therapy going to the dogs?

Gigi has his groupies,” laughs Barb Worden, a co-team leader in the Markham/Unionville area for Therapeutic Paws of Canada. 

She has been volunteering for Therapeutic Paws for approximately four years. She goes into a retirement residence every Monday. Some facilities will have an activity leader or person in charge who will give a list of residents who might like a visit. In other facilities she will just go into the lobby and see who wants to cuddle with a Shitzu for a while.

Barb puts a special blanket on the resident’s lap and then the dog. “The residents become quite possessive,” she laughs, “they want their turn, and they have to have the dog for the right amount of time.”

Barb’s experience is that residents come to expect the visits and they wait eagerly in the lobby, anticipating the two therapists’ arrival. If a resident is immobile, Barb will bring the dog to his/her room. She said her dog sits on six or seven laps during a single one-hour visit. “They just love him! They really rely on it. Gigi just chills on their laps.”

She said that one gentleman used to sit off to the side. He was very quiet and he was afraid Gigi would bite him. Barb reassured him that if the dog was apt to bite, he wouldn’t be allowed to be a therapy dog. The pets and handlers are fully insured by Therapeutic Paws of Canada. If any pet demonstrates aggression of any kind its services are terminated.

After about three or four weeks that elderly gentleman warmed up to the dog and after allowing him to sit on his lap, relaxed enough to slowly pet Gigi. “It was really something to see.”  

At this time they have only one cat on their local team. Cats offer friendship by sitting on a lap and responding to touch by purring.  Their playfulness brings smiles. Cats tend towards introversion, so they may require more breaks. Also, many people are allergic to cats, although Siamese cats seem to cause fewer problems.

 Barb said it is such a rewarding experience to see how the residents stroke the pets. “The dogs have such a calming influence.”  Dogs offer unconditional acceptance, love, and affection and they are subordinate to their dog handlers, making them excellent animals for pet therapy.

Service animals versus therapy animals

The lay terms used for animal therapy are somewhat confusing partly because they are often used interchangeably. Service dogs provide a necessary service that they are trained to perform in order to assist a particular need of the emotionally and/or physically challenged handler of the dog. Their training is very specific.


Therapy dogs provide a service to persons who aren’t their handlers. The training varies depending on the expected duties.


1.     Therapeutic visitation animals

These are the type of pet therapy animals most often used in long-term care facilities. There is little to no training required. There are no set goals other than to improve the general well-being of the residents. If the pet is stable, calm, obedient, well-groomed and sociable, it will pass the certification test. This is the type of service Therapeutic Paws of Canada offers.


2.     Animal-assisted therapy animals

These animals are usually used in patient rehabilitation. They are trained to encourage patients to improve their range of motion by walking or throwing a ball, for example. Interaction with the animals can improve the patients’ social skills, help them to show empathy, and assist them with learning how their behavior affects another living being. These animals can also be used in long-term care facilities.


3.     Facility therapy animals

These types of animals (dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, ferrets and fish) usually live right at the facility. Unfortunately, the smaller animals tend to have a shorter lifespan, and they may be susceptible to stress-related problems if they are handled too much, or if there is too much commotion.

Historical use of animals

 Hieroglyphics and elaborate burial sites with mummified dogs tell us that the ancient Egyptians greatly enjoyed and valued their domesticated dogs. Recorded accounts of therapeutic relationships between humans and animals date back to the 1600s. It was Boris Levinson who first used the term “pet therapist” in the 1960s to refer to his dog, Jingles, who assisted him in his therapeutic work.1 After that, researchers and practitioners were very interested in the psychological effects of animals on human behavior and well-being.


Anecdotal stories abound on the improvement in residents’ well-being after socializing with a therapy pet. The socializing produces a certain sense of calmness, eases loneliness, fulfills some of the needs for touch, lifts depression and stimulates wonderful conversations. Even residents who barely respond to human contact will often respond positively to animals.

One study, done by Baun, M.M., & McCabe2, researched the health benefits of pet therapy on seniors with Alzheimer’s disease. Immediately after the seniors had spent time with the therapy dogs there was a noticeable improvement in the seniors’ blood pressures. Another researcher, Odendaal3, discovered positive changes in participants’ cortisol and dopamine following contact with animals. Even fish in a fish tank had a positive effect on residents’ eating habits, according to Edwards and Beck.4

It’s free


Many residents in long-term care facilities may feel as if they aren’t getting the care or attention they crave. Government fiscal cutbacks are putting a strain on staff attempting to meet the needs of their residents. 

If Therapeutic Paws of Canada has a visiting pair available in a certain region in Canada, they will call the local facilities to ask if a visit would be appreciated. Facilities can also call them, but Barb Worden informed me they have far too few dogs and cats to meet all the needs. They are still looking for more volunteers.

 Pet therapy programs offer incredible positive outcomes, and they are free! Maybe therapy should go to the dogs after all.



1Levinson, B. M. (1964). Pets: A special technique in child psychotherapy [Electronic version]. Mental Hygiene, 48, 243-248. 

2Baun, M.M., & McCabe, B.W. (2000). The role animals play in enhancing quality of life for the elderly. In A. Fine (Ed.), Animal assisted Therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice (pp. 213-234). NY: Academic Press.

3Odendall, J. S. J. (2000). Animal-assisted therapy: Magic or medicine [Electronicversion]. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 49(4), 275-280.

4Edwards, N. E., & Beck, A. M. (2002). Animal-assisted therapy and nutrition in Alzheimer’s disease [Electronic version]. Western Journal of Nursing research, 24(6), 697-712.

Resources for non-profit therapies including pet visitation therapies for senior residences:

Therapeutic Paws of Canada.

Hamilton and Burlington area: Pet encounter therapy program. They use cats and dogs for pet visitation therapy in long-term care facilities.

Canadian Service Dogs Inc. In addition to pet visitation therapies this resource is also useful for information concerning trained service dogs, assistance dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals.

Edmonton, Alberta: Pet therapy society of northern Alberta Includes animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activity programs. Training for volunteers and companion animals is provided.

Vancouver Island, British Columbia with satellite offices in Campbell River, Parksville/Qualicum Beach, Port Alberni and Smithers: Pacific Animal Therapy Society (PATS). .  Won the Vera Award sponsored by the University of Victoria Centre on Aging.

Calgary, Alberta. PALS. In addition to dogs and cats, this organization uses pigs, rabbits, ferrets and even one horse.

Glenda Dekkema-de Vries B.A., has worked as a registered nurse in residential care homes, rehabilitation, oncology and psychiatry. She can be contacted at