The Role of a Therapy Dog in Healthcare

Man’s best friend is a common phrase used to describe a domestic dog, referring to its millennia-long history of close relations, loyalty, and companionship with humans. Living in Bozeman, MT,  we see this common phrase; “Man’s best friend,”  living and breathing all through the community. 

Here at APRS,  we are fortunate to have a black lab/golden retriever therapy dog at our east location, named Halina. A therapy dog should not be confused with a service dog. A therapy dog like Halina, has received training but has a completely different role from a service dog. Therapy dogs can provide psychological or physiological therapy to individuals. They are usually trained by their owner or trainer and must meet a certain set of standards to be certified and registered as a therapy dog. These dogs have stable temperaments and friendly, easy-going personalities. As a therapy dog, Halina  is encouraged to interact and visit with a variety of people while ‘on-duty’. She loves affection and being petted. 

A service or assistant dog, on the other hand, is a dog that is individually and specifically trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Some examples of this include a dog trained to guide a person who is blind, alerting a person who is deaf or having a seizure, pulling a wheelchair, or other physical tasks such as opening and closing doors. Service animals are working animals. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability and is best defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

Therapy dogs have been shown to reduce blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety as well as stress. There have also been recent studies regarding therapy dogs in the workplace resulting in an increase in cooperative, friendly, active, enthusiastic, and in an attentive environment workplace. 

Halina has been a great addition to our team at APRS Physical Therapy,  and we have been able to witness some of these measures first hand. Here are a few examples of how Halina has made a difference in the treatment plans and recovery of some of our clients: 

  • A young patient on crutches who was fearful to try walking without them, even though orthopedically she was ready to take this next step in recovery. Halina was used to help the patient relax and eventually used to have this patient walk her  around on her leash. The patient was unable to use crutches and manage the leash at the same time, forcing her to ditch the crutches, while building her confidence in walking again with Halina by her side. By the end of this patient’s session, she was running around the gym with Halina at her side. 
  • Another individual came in with significant pain following an injury and a significant increase in blood pressure. It was very difficult for the physical therapist to assess the injury due to pain and fear the patient was experiencing.  With Halina’s help, this patient was able to calm down tremendously. Through the course of the session,  pain became much more manageable, as well as a  drop in blood pressure with  Halina’s help through coaxing, love and snuggles. 
  •  The final example is from a patient’s young daughter, who accompanied her mother to her appointments. This young child  was deathly afraid of dogs from an earlier trauma she had experienced. Over the course of her mother’s care, the daughter became more and more comfortable with Halina and by the end of her mother’s treatment plan, was  able to sit next to and pet Halina. Her mother was grateful for this interaction. Now their family is able to venture in the community without fear of a dog encounter. 

Numerous studies have shown that when people take a moment to pet an animal, their stress and anxiety are reduced. Needless to say, Halina has been a great addition to our workplace at APRS Physical Therapy helping patients along their journey to wellness, as well as assisting therapists in their treatment plans.  

Halina is a member of our APRS Physical Therapy team  at our east location.. If you would like her to be part of your treatment session, just speak to your therapist. Also, if you have animal allergies or concerns, please let our staff know.  

Brittany Milne, DPT, OCS is an orthopedic specialist physical therapist at our APRS Physical Therapy East Clinic in Bozeman, MT.