Therapy Dogs: Love, Laughter, And A Dark Side
We’ve all seen images of senior citizens beaming as they caress a therapy dog in the day room of their nursing home. But do the images match the reality? The number of organizations that train, evaluate and deliver animal-assisted interventions (AAI) in the U.S. has grown substantially in recent decades. The American Kennel Club (AKC) recognized 180 therapy dog organizations in 2018. This likely understates the actual number, and there is no single entity that accredits therapy dog organizations using a common set of standards. Instead, there are six, each with their own requirements. As a result, the therapy animal industry is more or less self-regulated. Each entity chooses to accredit or not and has its own policies and procedures for screening, evaluating, and training dogs and handlers and providing services.
Little is known about the range of practices that exist across organizations and whether they are enough to ensure the health and welfare of dogs, their handlers, and those they serve. People who interact with therapy dogs are at risk for zoonotic disease (diseases transmitted from animals to humans), bites, scratches, and allergic reactions. Some people are afraid of dogs and even the best trained canine can provoke an extreme fear response. The dogs themselves may become overworked or suffer social stress from interacting with unfamiliar people.
To learn more about policies and practices in the therapy dog industry, researchers surveyed four large and 24 smaller therapy dog agencies. Survey questions were based on AAI guidelines from a number of sources. Respondents were asked about how they screen and train dogs and handlers, what kind of formal guidelines and policies are in place, and how they ensure the welfare of the dogs, and the people the dogs serve.
Survey results suggest wide disparities in program management. Most organizations had a set of standards in place for screening dogs and mandated in-person dog evaluations. They assessed dogs using tests that simulated the circumstances they would find in an institutional setting. But there was less agreement on the minimum age, breed, and length of time with the handler. Spay/neuter status and the need for AKC Good Citizen certification also varied across agencies. There was an almost universal requirement for veterinary clearance and rabies vaccination, but not for other immunizations.
The risk of zoonotic disease transfer increases when dogs are fed a raw meat diet or raw meat treats, but less than a quarter of organizations prohibited those. Of particular concern is the risk of transmitting salmonella, which one study found in 48% of commercial raw meat pet food. Clostridium, listeria and even tuberculosis can infect humans who contact diseased dogs.
AAI visits can be stressful for dogs, but only 50% of agencies impose limits on the length of visits. Published guidelines recommend a maximum visit length of one hour, but visit maximums of 1 ½-2 hours were the more common limits set by agency guidelines. Since most organizations provide information on canine welfare, this omission is a little puzzling. But perhaps even more troubling, over a third of organizations did not explicitly disallow coercive training aids or the use of positive punishment by handlers. This may be the clearest failure in the current system of industry self-regulation.
While AAI would seem to be an animal-friendly industry, this study highlights several areas that need improvement. Animal advocates can acquaint themselves with the particulars of AAI entities in their local areas. Then, they can use this study to assess how well the organization protects the welfare of the dogs, handlers, and those they serve and encourage change where they find deficiencies.