Therapy Dogs in EMS

Involvement in a therapy dog program can be good for your patients--and your service.


This is the second in a series of articles from MONOC Mobile Health Services. MONOC is New Jersey's largest provider of EMS and medical transportation and first CAAS-accredited agency. The goal of this series is to provide insight and solutions for the different managerial and operational challenges facing the EMS leaders of tomorrow. For more, see

For as long as animals and humans have cohabitated, there has been an indisputable bond and benefit to both in an array of areas, including mental and physical health. Any Internet search of animal assisted therapy or therapy dogs will yield vast information on studies conducted as early as the 1800s in which the sick and elderly saw their conditions improved through relationships with animals.

Research has shown that animals--more specifically, specially trained therapy dogs--can provide such enhancements to treatment as mental calming and stimulation, distraction from the unpleasant circumstances of illness, something to look forward to (such as scheduled visits), increased communication, etc. The presence of animals serves to brighten the atmosphere, increasing amusement, laughter and play. These positive distractions may help decrease people's feelings of isolation or alienation. Therapy dogs and other animals have also been shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure.

Different dog personalities can offer different advantages. For example, an older, less active dog may be calming--it is nonthreatening and can quietly give and receive affection via petting, lying close, etc. A younger, more active dog can provide laughter through comical behavior and tricks. In any case, the effect a well-trained therapy dog can have on an elderly or pediatric patient, special-needs student or resident of an inpatient facility can be obvious. It may behoove leaders of healthcare systems, including EMS services, to consider ways to incorporate the benefit of such animals in their services. In addition to benefiting patients, they can also be a great PR and outreach tool for an organization.

Requirements of a Therapy Dog Program

It is important to understand that while therapy dogs may be permitted in hospitals and other healthcare facilities, they are not afforded the same rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act as actual "service dogs." Service dogs are defined as "any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including but not limited to guiding individuals with impaired vision, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to intruders or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair [sic] or fetching dropped items." Therefore, therapy dog handlers must actually obtain permission to enter facilities and areas in which pets would not otherwise be permitted. It is best for any therapy dog program to have executed a memorandum of understanding with any facility being visited prior to the first actual visit.

Like service dogs, therapy dogs must be well trained. An agency with a therapy dog program must have met minimum training and certification requirements for dogs that are being trusted around people who are disabled, sick, weak and mentally challenged. The different conditions of people being visited dictate that a dog must not be aggressive in any way, and must remain tolerant of those who may not know how to properly handle or react to it.

A good place to start is the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen program. This is a two-part program that stresses responsible pet ownership for owners and basic good manners for dogs. All dogs who pass the 10-step Canine Good Citizen test may receive a certificate from the nationally recognized American Kennel Club. This certification attests that dogs are able to behave properly in common scenarios such as when their handlers interact with others, being approached by a stranger or another dog, being groomed, walking on a leash without pulling or becoming distracted, and being in a crowd. The dog is also evaluated on its ability to follow commands such as "sit" and "stay," and must also be able to demonstrate the ability to be supervised by a stranger while the handler leaves.

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