Mental health therapy dogs uk

Deborah C. Escalante


therapy dog uk

You may have heard about how therapy dogs in classrooms can perform wonders — they can help relieve student stress, help kids learn to read, and even boost test scores. You may also see therapy dogs work as part of the volunteering team with their handlers in places such as schools, hospitals, and carehomes.

So, are therapy dogs the same as assistance dogs? We get questions about whether a therapy dog counts as an assistance dog all the time. In this article, let’s explore the traits and requirements of a therapy dog and find out the answer.

In this article

1. What Exactly is A Therapy Dog?

2. What conditions could be assisted by a Therapy Dog?

3. Why Therapy Dogs should be trained first?

4. How to get a Therapy Dog in the UK

    Step 1 Choose a therapy dog candidate

    Step 2 Therapy Dog Training

    Step 3 Therapy Dog Registration

What Exactly is A Therapy Dog?

Therapy dogs, which are called “comfort dogs” sometimes, support a person’s mental health by providing attention and comfort. Their sweet unconditional love may have a therapeutic benefit to those who face health challenges. Unlike assistance dogs, however, anyone can get help from a therapy dog.

Assistance dogs are specially trained to perform specific tasks to help an individual who has a disability. Assistance dogs have access privileges in public places such as on planes, restaurants, supermarkets, etc, while therapy dogs do not have the same public access as assistance dogs.

The question at the beginning of the article should unveil itself now: Therapy dogs are not assistance dogs.

What conditions could be assisted by a Therapy Dog?

Some mental health challenges and psychiatric disorders are known to respond well to therapy dogs, such as

 •  Depression

 •  Bipolar disorder

 •  Autism

 •  ADHD

 •  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

 •  Alzheimer’s disease

 •  Emotional challenges result from physical health problems

therapy dog training uk

Why Therapy Dogs should be trained first?

For the safety of the dog and the people they visit, all therapy animals must be very calm, friendly, sociable, and must be trained to respond to commands regardless of any distractions around.

They are trained to be friendly, patient, gentle, and at ease in all situations:

– be willing to handled or cuddled by strangers

– have no sensitivity to rough stroking or petting

– reach excellent on-leash obedience levels

– be tolerant of unusual smells and sites, such as wheelchairs and medical devices, as therapy dog and handler teams usually visit health facilities

– have no fear of unsteady movement in humans

– interact with other animals in a positive way

– have no food or toy aggression

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– no jump on or even paw at people

How to get a Therapy Dog in the UK

If you would like to own a therapy dog, the process is straightforward, but it does take some time and effort.

When you pick a therapy dog candidate, you should watch your dog closely and objectively at first to determine its true temperament. Any breed of dog can be used for therapeutic purposes, so long as it fits these requirements:

– Be healthy and over one-year of age

– Stay calm in high distracting situations

– Enjoy human contact

– Present a stable temperament

The therapy dog candidate should also be well-trained in basic obedience, and easily adaptable to novel noises, places, smells, and equipment for different purposes.

Many people prefer to choose their domestic dogs as therapy dogs so that they can be trained and then accompany their family members or friends (mostly the elderly or patients).

Step 2:  Therapy Dog Training

You can choose to train a therapy dog on your own or with professional assistance. Training a therapy dog is no easy task, and often requires a lot of work on behalf of both the dog and the handler. Here’s a good place to start: How to Train Your Puppy to Become a Therapy Dog

You can contact your local hospital, special needs education organizations, or nursing home to see if they have their own animal therapy programs. Different organizations have varying criteria.  Double-check the requirements before you enroll in a particular course.

Therapy Dog Training Course

Step 3: Therapy Dog Registration

Before having your dog as a therapy dog on a voluntary basis, it is recommended to first assess you and your dog work as a team. Here is a checklist for your reference:

No 1: The dog will accept friendly strangers and allow people to approach and speak to the handler in a natural, everyday situation.

No 2: The dog will sit and stay politely for petting from people other than the handler.

No 3: The dog will walk on a loose lead.

No 4: The dog will walk through a small crowd.

No 5: The dog must respond well to verbal commands like ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘come’, and ‘heel’.

No 6: The dog will come when called by the handler from about 10 feet away on a leash.

No 7: The dog will socialize with other dogs and display no fear or aggression.

No 8: The dog will stay calm in high distracting situations.

Once you decide to provide comfort and support to people with your dog partner, we would like to suggest that you register your Therapy Dog with as a certified Therapy Dog before you contact the places that you will go with your dog partner to support.

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Service Animal Registration

Taking care of an animal can be a great way to improve your mental health [1]. But not every landlord allows pets. You can get around this if a mental health professional certifies that you need an emotional support animal. There are other types of service animals too—it’s important to understand what you’re trying to get, because the steps are different for each type.

Emotional support animals (ESAs)

An emotional support animal (ESA) is just what it sounds like—a pet that provides emotional support. ESAs don’t need any special training (beyond the normal training a pet needs). Dogs and cats are the most common, but any domesticated animal can be an ESA.

ESAs are covered under the Fair Housing Act. This allows people with an ESA to have their pet in their home even if there is a “no pet” policy. The law also prevents additional pet fees for ESAs. Small ESAs can also travel with you on a plane free of charge. Unlike service dogs, ESAs aren’t allowed into other public places that don’t normally allow pets.

In order to get the benefits of an ESA, you will need a “prescription” from a mental health professional. This is basically just a signed letter stating that you have a mental health condition and that your pet helps you deal with it. Some landlords and airlines will accept a letter from a medical doctor, but often it needs to be a therapist or a psychiatrist.

Service animals (dogs only)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as dogs that are individually trained to perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability [2]. This can be a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Only dogs are legally considered service animals. Other domestic animals are covered only as emotional support animals or therapy animals.

Qualifying for a service dog is simple. Actually getting one is a bit harder. To qualify for a service animal, all you need to do is get written documentation from your healthcare provider that you have and are being treated for an emotional or psychiatric disorder or disability and require the assistance of an animal because of it. The work a dog has been trained to do must specifically relate to your condition. Training a service dog yourself can be difficult and can take years. Usually you would get a service dog from someone else who has already trained it.

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Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs)

A psychiatric service dog (PSD) is a specific type of service animal trained to assist those with mental illnesses. These include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. For example, a dog may assist someone with PTSD in doing room searches or turning on lights. Or it might help someone in a dissociative episode from wandering into danger. Providing companionship, calming anxiety, or providing a sense of safety merely by its presence are not legally considered “tasks.”

If you’re not sure whether to get an ESA or a PSD, think about what your specific needs are. Is this animal going to assist you in tasks you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do? You’ll probably need a service animal. Are they primarily going to provide companionship, non-judgmental positive regard, and affection? That sounds more like an ESA, which is much easier to get anyway.

Therapy animals

Therapy animals are used in therapeutic settings, like hospitals or nursing homes. Some examples might be a cat that lives at a treatment facility, a dog that is taken to visit people in a disaster area, or a horse used in equestrian therapy. Therapy animals provide affection and comfort to people, but they are different than PSDs or ESAs. They are screened for their ability to perform a specific type of therapy, and they are handled by professionals.

Can you take care of an animal?

Before getting any kind of pet or service animal, it is important to seriously consider the responsibilities that come along with it. Think about whether you can care for it physically, mentally, and financially. Service animals in particular are a big commitment. ESAs are a little easier since they don’t need special training, but any pet is still a commitment. If you can’t handle a dog, consider a lower-maintenance pet like a cat or a fish. If even that is too much, try starting with a plant or a stuffed animal, or another form of treatment.

Show References

  1. Mental Health Foundation. (2022). Pets and mental health. Retrieved from
  2. Brennan & Nguyen. (2014). Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals
    Where are they allowed and under what conditions? Retrieved from

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