What Are The Benefits Of Having A Therapy Dog?

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated May 27, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

Therapy dogs can have numerous benefits, such as providing a sense of purpose, adding structure and routine to a person’s life, offering unconditional love, and alleviating symptoms of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Both therapy dogs and pet dogs can provide mental health benefits and be a good supplement to other approaches, like talk therapy and self-care.

Is a therapy dog the right choice for you?

What is a therapy dog? 

Therapy dogs are dogs specially trained to provide comfort and support for people in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, schools, or hospices. 

According to the American Animal Hospital Association, these dogs often work in group or individual settings, and they can provide impactful animal-assisted interventions for people with or without diagnosed conditions

Trained therapy dogs can be used for animal-assisted therapy (AAT) or animal-assisted activity (AAA). While AAT is directed or directly delivered by a health professional or human service provider and is documented, AAA is not. For example, AAT might be used during speech therapy or during talk therapy, whereas AAA might be used at airports, at schools before major exams, or for de-stressing comfort at hospitals.  

Note that while these dogs have special training and credentialing, they are not recognized as service animals.

When were dogs first used for therapy?

Dogs were used for therapeutic purposes as early as the late 1800s. By the early 1970s, Elaine Smith, the founder of Therapy Dogs International (TDI), noticed how patients responded to the presence of a golden retriever dog: They enjoyed petting and interacting with the dog, and they seemed to be in a better mood after the visit. 

Today, organizations like TDI provide handlers and dogs in many different therapy situations; hospitals, hospices, senior living, and support groups are a few institutions that regularly use therapy dogs.

Personal therapy dogs

Therapy dogs can be a wonderful way to experience the love and calming influence a canine companion can provide. Dogs often have an innate ability to love unconditionally, which can be very beneficial for those living with physical and/or mental health concerns. 

However, therapy dogs are often confused with service animals. Unlike service animals, therapy dogs are not intended for personal use. Instead, therapy dogs are trained by a handler and registered with an organization. When a hospital (or other place) is looking for the help of a therapy dog, they may contact the handler and invite them to visit. 

Instead, people looking for a personal therapy dog may want to research emotional support animals. Whether or not a dog is trained and registered to provide emotional support, many dog owners find that they provide mental health benefits. 

Training your own therapy dog

You can sometimes train your own dog if you’re experienced or willing to learn through books and online resources, though your dog may be required to pass a test before becoming a registered therapy dog. After getting registered with a therapy dog organization, you will be eligible to volunteer in various public settings. 

Some people hope to train a therapy dog that can accompany them wherever they go (ex: to restaurants, airports, and work). But it’s important to understand that there is a difference between emotional support dogs, therapy dogs, and service dogs:

  • Emotional support animals usually require no training but do not often have more public access rights than pets
  • Therapy dogs are usually invited to visit certain locations (such as hospitals), but they do not usually have more public access rights than pets
  • Service animals have completed rigorous training that allows them to go practically everywhere with their handler

Benefits of owning a therapy dog

If you own a therapy dog, you are likely a handler who provides therapy benefits for other people, rather than yourself. You might go to hospitals or other environments (upon invitation) with your therapy dog to provide others with comfort and connection. 

However, that doesn't mean you can’t benefit from caring for and owning a therapy dog (or any other type of dog).

The benefits of owning a dog may include things like: 

  • Providing comfort during difficult periods 
  • Reducing loneliness 
  • Providing routine and stability
  • Motivation to go on walks and get out of the house
  • Reducing depressive symptoms
  • Providing  a sense of safety and security

These are just some of the benefits that dogs can offer. Additionally, research shows that the stronger the bond between dog and human, the greater these benefits may become

If you do have a therapy dog, you may experience extra benefits, such as a sense of purpose or deeper connection for your community by volunteering as their handler. 

Top therapy dog breeds

Getty/Halfpoint Images

While any dog can become a therapy dog, some breeds tend to be better suited for the task. The following dog breeds are often well-suited to become therapy dogs because of their temperaments and trainability:

  • Labrador retriever
  • Golden retriever
  • Greyhounds
  • Cavalier King Charles spaniel
  • Beagle
  • French bulldog

While it is possible that some breeds are more suited to become therapy dogs than others, it’s likely that the dog’s training is a more significant factor. Therapy dogs typically enroll in therapy dog classes and must pass a final exam before registering with a therapy dog organization. 

After registration, a therapy dog is considered ready to be invited to provide therapy in settings such as nursing homes, hospices, hospitals, and schools.  

When looking for a therapy dog, you might want to look for these characteristics: 

  • A confident personality
  • Tolerance toward other animals
  • Comfortable in public places
    • Does not startle easily
    • Calm around loud sounds and strange smells
    • Unbothered by crowds
  • Completely housebroken
  • Tolerant of small children
  • Comfortable with strangers
Is a therapy dog the right choice for you?

Other ways to cope with mental health challenges

Dogs can provide many people comfort and alleviate mental health challenges, but there can be other ways to cope as well. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based type of talk therapy that can effectively improve symptoms of things like depression, social anxiety, or chronic stress.

For people who have a busy schedule, meeting with a therapist in-person during business hours can be challenging. Online cognitive behavioral therapy through a platform like Regain can be more convenient, and it’s often more affordable than in-person therapy. 

Peer-reviewed studies have found that online cognitive behavioral therapy is often as effective as in-person therapy for a variety of challenges, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.


Therapy dogs can provide people with many benefits, including comfort, calm, and connection. Even if you don’t get to visit with a therapy dog, having a pet dog can provide mental health benefits like structure, unconditional love, a sense of purpose, reduced mental health symptoms, and a sense of safety. 

In addition to therapy dogs, there are many other ways to improve your mental health, such as working with an online therapist.

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