Therapy Dogs

Dogs Enrich Our Lives

March 11, 2012

Dogs can enrich our lives in many ways without even trying or knowing how. They do it by just being themsleves. By having a dog, we have a lesser chance of getting heart disease, depression and a host of other infirmaties. They do this with their mere existence within our world-without any training. The ones that are trained can help us weed out bad guys, find people & items, lead blind people, lend comfort to those in distress, alert people to impending seizures, detect pregnancy and assist handicapped people. Dogs have been found to be able to detect certain illnesses in humans, locate rare species of animals and on and on. I have a feeling that we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface with regards to the many ways dogs can enrich our lives.

Dogs As Therapists-Why Are they Good At It?

January 12, 2012

Why Dogs Make Great Therapists

by Dr. Sheri Spirit

Dogs, like the therapy dog pictured here, can help patients in many ways.

I am a psychiatrist in private practice and have been practicing with the aid of canines for the past 12 years. Without any doubt, it can be said dogs have the capability to be great therapists.

Therapy Dogs Ease the Environment

A therapy dog‘s presence adds a lightness to the treatment room, easing the history-taking process. The dog’s circus antics can distract highly agitated patients. The canine’s preference for kind and trustworthy individuals and their indifference to physical attributes and monetary worth demonstrate an excellent example for healthy relationship building.

Therapy Dogs Create a Safe Environment and Encourage Friendship

In treating paranoia, the dog’s gentle nature helps create a safe environment. The most profound example was the case of Elizabeth (name changed), a middle-aged woman suffering from intractable psychosis despite a plethora of medication. Her paranoia precluded her ability to interact normally with humans, yet she felt safe with therapy dogs.

From the beginning of treatment she befriended my five-pound Maltese, Shanie, and proceeded to lay down on the floor during her sessions, talking to me through him. For her birthday I gave Elizabeth a photograph of Shanie to hang on her wall. One day she came in saying she was hearing voices that were telling her to kill herself, but added, “Shanie was looking down at me and I couldn’t do that to him.”

Prescribing Therapy Dogs?

Witnessing the effects my “therapist” dog had on patients, people have asked if I ever “prescribed” a dog. In psychiatry there is no panacea for any disorder, although some treatments are clearly more effective than others. Many treatments work best in combination, a dog included.

The Success of Dogs Aiding Therapists Are Irrefutable

Certain symptoms of depression, including feelings of social isolation, worthlessness, and loneliness, are poor responders to medication, yet the therapeutic benefits of pets are irrefutable.

As non-human creatures fascinate most people, a pet draws attention. A 30-minute outing with my dogs on average attracts six onlookers, with usual comments like, “They are so cute, how old are they? What breed?” A conversation begins and within minutes one has a new friend. Dog parks and puppy classes are excellent meeting places. The responsibility of pet ownership also provides a sense of purpose to the individual.

Therapy Dogs Affect Brain Chemistry

Like medication, animals (like therapy dogs) affect brain chemistry. Studies have shown that stroking an animal releases a chemical called oxytocin into the bloodstream. Oxytocin is the same chemical released in women at the cusp of delivery, and engenders a feeling of calm and contentment that facilitates bonding. Thus, petting Rover reduces anxiety, decreases stress hormone release, and lowers blood pressure and cholesterol.

Dogs Have Value as Therapists

Additional medical accomplishments attributed to dogs such as “smelling” cancer cells or predicting seizures are, although wondrous in theory, quite speculative.

With certainty animals have therapeutic value, but as adjutants to traditional treatment, not as replacements. The goal of all treatment should be remission, and therefore any modality, within reason, that improves outcome should be considered.

However, canines cannot replace more conventional treatments, such as human healthcare providers. At the end of the day, Doctor Shanie is still just my email handle.

Therapy Dogs Do More Than Just Cheer Up People

December 29, 2011

How Dogs Enhance Human Life

December 7, 2011

How dogs are helping to stop bullying

Autism & Dogs

December 6, 2011

UT-Austin Autism Study Uses Dogs to Measure Social Skill Improvement in Children

UT-Austin and Austin Dog Alliance hope to learn if dogs can improve the ability of children with autism to concentrate and learn life skills.
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PRLog (Press Release)Dec 05, 2011 -
Can dogs help children with autism learn? Researchers from the University of Texas – Austin and the Austin Dog Alliance are trying to find out. In a study currently underway, children with autism are attending the first in a series of social-skill classes with specially trained therapy dogs that researchers hope will determine whether animals can improve the kids’ ability to stay engaged and learn life skills.

Results of the University of Texas Autism Project (UTAP) study could be vitally important as autism reaches epidemic proportions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects on average 1 in 110  – or 750,000 – children in the U.S. A neurological disorder and developmental disability, ASD symptoms include impairment in communication skills, social interactions, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.

“Parents of kids on the spectrum are looking for opportunities and acceptance for their children outside the home or school,” says Dr. Jody Jensen, Director of Research for the Autism Project and a Professor in the UT Department of Kinesiology and Health. “They wonder, ‘Can I take my child to a movie or a restaurant?’”

The study will measure whether children with ASD engaged in learning about and with dogs can calm repetitive and other distracting behaviors and increase attentiveness and ability to learn social skills more easily.

The UTAP is documenting how children on the spectrum behave in the dog-assisted classroom by filming two K9 Club – Autism Project classes conducted by the Austin Dog Alliance in north Austin. The classes, one for ages 8 to 10, one for ages 11 to 15, each include five kids and up to four therapy dogs, dog trainers and autism specialists.

“The K9 Club – Autism Project classes are highly structured, with time for a speaker, social-skill lessons, physical activity, craft projects and dog training,” says Debi Krakar, ADA Executive Director. “We have a theme each day. For example, if our speaker talks about dog nutrition and choosing good dog food, we have a human theme about eating right. If we talk about dog body language in the lesson, we also talk about human body language.”

The researchers study the children’s physical actions to determine if the dogs are helping keep the children engaged. They want to see if activities such as stroking the dog might reduce a child’s repetitive behavior or encourage them to sit through a speaker’s talk. Can helping train a dog keep a child’s focus throughout the activity? And do these children, who often avoid social interaction with others, want to return and continue the program so that they can practice social skills in a supportive and fun group setting?

Parents also report on any changes they see in their children.

Laurie Scott says the Austin Dog Alliance’s K9 Club classes provide an accepting social network for her teen-age son, Martin, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at age three and is now in 7th grade.
“Martin, loves going to K9 Club classes,” said Scott, “and he’s asked when he can go back. When dogs are at the center of any learning experience, he’s engaged and excited about participating. The impact on Martin and my new vision of possibilities for my son has been nothing short of a miracle.”

Next steps? If funding continues, Jensen hopes to resume this research effort with two follow-up class series, one studying typically developing children and a final series using both typically developing children and children with ASD in the same classroom. Completing all three studies would give researchers a basis of comparison that could lead to the best analysis of how effective the child-dog training can be.

For Martin and children like him, it’s hoped that these very special dogs can make a life-long difference.

About Austin Dog Alliance
Located in Austin, Texas, Austin Dog Alliance, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, is the only organization in Texas providing group social skill development programs for children with autism spectrum disorder that incorporate the use of canine assisted therapy. These special dogs are registered pet partners with the Delta Society – the internationally recognized gold standard for therapy dog training – that have received additional training through Austin Dog Alliance to work with children on the spectrum. Austin Dog Alliance also provides Delta Society registered handler-dog teams to local hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, as well as schools and libraries through its Bow Wow Reading Dog program.

Austin Dog Alliance was created to provide an accepting and supportive environment where dogs and humans can improve health and wellbeing. Human-dog training classes provide a solid financial foundation to support the Training and Office Facility, donations and fundraising events are used to sustain and grow community outreach programs such as Autism enrichment, dog therapy services, Bow Wow Reading Dog, rescue and youth programs.

For more information, visit

About the University of Texas Autism Project (UTAP)
The purpose of University of Texas Autism Project (UTAP) is to provide a center of excellence for services, knowledge, and best practices related to living, and working, with children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). UTAP is an initiative of the Kinesiology and Health Education Department in the College of Education.

For more information, visit


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