Animal-Assisted Therapy From A Dog’s Perspective
In recent years, therapy dogs have become an increasingly important part of many people’s lives. They offer a range of services, including emotional support, stress management, and social companionship. While the benefits of therapy dog service for their human beneficiaries are clear, there is relatively little research on the benefits (and risks) to the dogs themselves.
This is important for several reasons. First, therapy dogs managed by a handler have a very different relationship to their work than service dogs, whose work directly benefits their guardians instead of a third-party therapy recipient. Second, taking into account the ethics of animal-assisted interventions (AAIs) is critical for making it work. For example, a tired, burnt-out dog is simply not going to be effective in her work. Finally, there is currently neither a systematic selection of dogs nor required training for AAIs. While the highly variable contexts that these animals work in can make such a standard challenging, the solution to this shouldn’t be a lack of standards.
To contribute to this scarce body of research, a team of researchers in France interviewed 111 dog handlers to better understand how handlers perceive their therapy dog’s welfare. The importance of this work is twofold: it highlights the need to address the well-being of therapy dogs, and it reveals the risk factors for the dogs’ welfare.
The research questions were divided into two parts. First, handlers were asked to define dog welfare in their practice, how dog welfare impacts the quality of a session, how handlers apply the general guidelines on dog welfare, challenges they face in respecting their dogs’ welfare, and the handlers’ thoughts on the benefits of AAI to the dogs themselves. The second part focused on risk factors that might impact therapy dog welfare, including the parameters influencing it, stress factors, how handlers ensure the welfare of their therapy dog, and how they spot stress and pleasure in their dogs.
The answers varied widely by handler (and even varied between dogs for handlers who were answering for two animals), but a few general themes emerged. Specifically, for the first part of the questionnaire, handlers linked dog welfare to psychological well-being, work-life balance, agency, and respecting each dog’s needs and desires. In other words, dogs need to be emotionally cared for with handlers playing an active role in recognizing their needs and stress signals. They should have appropriate time off from work to decompress and simply “be a dog,” rather than a working dog. They should be able to choose how to work and to have their unique needs addressed by the handler. After all, as sentient beings, not every dog will want to participate in AAIs in the same way. On the question of whether the dogs benefit from the work they do, many handlers said that their dogs enjoy being able to interact with people, spend time outside, be the center of attention, and play.
Beyond the basic definition of dog welfare, handlers also recognized various risk factors to the dogs’ well-being in their line of work. These were separated into four main factors:
- Interactions: For example, dogs are impacted by noisy interactions, inappropriate gestures, or being surrounded by too many people.
- Work Environment: Dogs may become affected by the length of their sessions, the time they have to decompress, and the physical environment they work in, including the size of the therapy room and whether there’s space to rest.
- Handler: A dog’s well-being is often impacted by her handler. This includes whether the handler is emotionally stressed, has a positive relationship with the dog, and can recognize the dog’s individual needs.
- Dog: Finally, dogs may be impacted by personal variables such as their mood, health, ability to manage emotions, and socialization.
When it comes to managing their dogs’ stress and welfare, handlers understood themselves to be important “gatekeepers.” By acting as a sort of mediator between the dogs and the AAI beneficiaries, the handlers can offer dogs a resting space if they become tired or distressed, monitor the dog’s behavior, and help maintain the dog’s agency during a session.
Finally, handlers also described how their dogs communicate their limits during a therapy session. This is an important part of agency; if a dog wants a break from work but is unable to have her needs met, this could harm her welfare. Handlers mainly emphasized that their dogs will leave the session or stay but avoid interactions, signal to the handler that they need a rest, or seek out contact with the handler (either visual or physical).
Because AAIs involve both humans and animals, it’s important to prioritize the animals’ well-being as much as the humans involved. Moving forward, the authors highlight the need for handlers to be trained in dog behavior to recognize distress signals in their dogs and to quickly remove them from uncomfortable situations. Furthermore, there is an urgent need for clear guidelines on therapy dog selection and welfare based on scientific evidence. Animal advocates can help by calling for legislative standards in these areas, and for engaging in public education to promote the animal perspective in animal-assisted therapy.