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  Visiting Pets and Animal Assisted Therapy

What is a therapy dog or therapy pet?

"Visiting Pets" "Therapy Dogs" "Therapy Pets" are just some of the names given to describe programs in which animals help people just by visiting with them. As participation in such programs grows so does the vocabulary describing different aspects of pet visiting. For example, the preferred use for the term "Animal Assisted Therapy" is for formal treatment programs, usually involving one particular animal and handler assigned to one particular client. The handler and the health care provider consult on specific goals to be accomplished, and plan how to accomplish those goals. The preferred use for more informal programs is "Animal Assisted Activities."

You will see a great variety of terms as groups struggle to find terms that are descriptive without being confusing. The most commonly used term for a dog visiting in residential care facilities is "therapy dog," but I prefer "visiting dog" when the visit is general, with no specific plan for a specific individual. The term "visiting dog" avoids bothering those for whom "therapy" has a narrow and technical sense, and yet it is easily understood.

Why take animals visiting in health care facilities?

Visiting with animals can help people feel less lonely, and less depressed. Visits from dogs can provide a welcome change from routine, or the renewal of old friendships. People become more active and responsive both during and after visiting with animals.

An animal visit can offer entertainment, or a welcome distraction from pain and infirmity. People often talk to the dogs, and share with them their thoughts and feelings and memories. Animal visits provide something to look forward to. Stroking a dog or cat can reduce a person's blood pressure. Petting encourages use of hands and arms, stretching and turning.

The pet makes it easier for two strangers to talk. It gives people a common interest and provides a focus for conversation. Many people in hospitals or group homes have had to give up pet ownership and they miss the casual acceptance a pet gives them. A dog pays little attention to age or physical ability, but accepts people as they are. The benefits continue even after the visit. The visit leaves behind memories not only of the visit, but of past experiences. It offers something for people to share.

Can other kinds of pets participate?

Yes, most domestic animals can be suitable for visiting. The essential elements will be the same. In discussing therapy pets I will usually refer to dogs because they are by far the most common pet visitors. In most cases evaluation of whether the pet is a good prospective visitor will be the same regardless of the species.

What makes a good therapy dog?

Visiting dogs must be social. The point of the program is the interaction between the dog and the people you are visiting. If the dog does not enjoy the visit the interaction will be less than ideal. The person needs to feel accepted by the dog. A doggie rejection could make the visit more hurtful than no visit at all. A good therapy dog is calm, tolerant and friendly. The visits should be pleasurable for both of you. Don't try to force therapy work on a dog.

Visiting dogs must be polite. It is rude for a person to challenge another for walking down a public street. The same is true for your dog. That it is natural for one dog to challenge another does not mean its polite. It is also rude for one person to touch another without permission. How would you react if some stranger on the street walked up to you and kissed you? A polite dog does not touch a person unless invited.


The balance between calmness, and friendliness is a difficult one. Even an excellent obedience dog may not be a good visiting dog if it shows little interest in meeting people. An aloof dog may be calm, but may cause people to feel rejected. A very friendly dog may have the best of intentions but may cause injury. A dog that is full of energy and always ready to work may be too active for most situations.

Any breed of dog can participate. My visiting dog, Oso, is a large breed terrier mix. I can take credit only for his schooling. The temperament that makes him suitable is natural to him, and the reason I chose to become involved. His girlfriend, Tanith, is also well schooled and well socialized. Her natural exuberance, however, is not well suited to the kind of visits we do. Maturity may make the difference for her. When I decide whether a dog is suited for visiting I think about what I'm asking them to do. If I'm asking them to constantly restrain themselves, when that is not their nature, I'm not sure they can enjoy visiting. It is important to that the dog is comfortable with the behavior required of it.

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Getting involved

If you are interested in getting involved in visiting with your dog, you will need more information. You will need to consider your dog's personality, temperament and behavior. Work with your dog in encountering unusual sights, sounds and smells. By joining a group you can take advantage of insurance, and get help evaluating your dog.

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DogPlay's Visiting Pet Stuff

Check the other articles on therapy dogs, visiting pets and related topics.Oso icon to visiting pet index

Also see Books and Publications - How to train your dog, how to start a program, and more.
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Copyright © 1996-2003, Diane Blackman     Created: August 23, 1998     Updated November 12, 2007    

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