There are dogs that do incredible things for humans. Assistance dogs and therapy dogs are an example. We tell you how they differ and why the bond they develop and their purpose is so important.

Some dogs do amazing things for humans. Assistance dogs and therapy dogs are examples of this. We’ll show you the difference between the two and explain why what they do is so important.

Working dogs: According to the World Canine Organization, some breeds of dog are classified as “working dogs”. This classification includes breeds that have been selectively bred to carry out specific types of work: herding, guarding, defending etc.

However, the category of working dogs also includes those dogs (either pure-bred or mixed breed) who have been trained to carry out a specific professional function. Although it might sound strange, they are canine workers. We are referring to sheepdogs, fire service (rescue) dogs, police dogs, guide dogs, assistance dogs, etc. All of these dogs carry out an extremely important role in our society.

Types of assistance dog: Working dogs include those known as assistance dogs and therapy dogs. The difference between the two is:
Assistance dogs: these dogs have been trained to help people with a physical or learning impairment in carrying out their normal, everyday tasks.

Therapy dogs: these dogs play a part in and facilitate therapy. This means they act as a support mechanism for the therapist leading the session (psychologist, psychiatrist, physiotherapist, etc.), enabling them to achieve better results with their patient.

Often, the bond between people and animals is used by the therapist to achieve improved results in a therapy session. This is because animals give unconditional love and acceptance, are spontaneously affectionate and provide a wealth of other things which allow people’s positive emotions to come to the surface.

You’ll often hear people talking about therapy dogs, but what many people don’t know is that there are also therapy programmes supported by cats, which work brilliantly. To be able to work, assistance and therapy dogs need to be properly trained.

The concept of emotional support dogs is also becoming more widespread. These dogs sit between assistance dogs and therapy dogs, as they don’t need to be trained in any sort of specialist skills, but they do need to be sufficiently socialised to be able to provide the emotional support that their owners need.

Are working dogs always a specific breed?

Contrary to what many people believe, therapy or assistance dogs don’t have to belong to a specific breed. Actually, lots of the dogs who do this type of work are mixed breeds. The most important characteristics in dogs who work as assistance or service dogs are sociability, a friendly nature, and not responding aggressively to surprising or frightening stimuli. They also need to have a good capacity for learning.

Skills of assistance and therapy dogs

Once a dog has been selected to work as an assistance or therapy dog, it will undergo a specific training schedule. The professional trainers tasked with training these dogs are able to teach them a wide range of fascinating skills. In the case of assistance dogs, some of these skills might be:

  • Opening drawers
  • Catching, fetching and carrying objects to their owner (remember that their owner may have very reduced mobility)
  • Helping to remove a jumper or trousers by pulling on the garment
  • Switching light switches on and off

In general, assistance dogs need to know anything that could help their owners lead normal day-to-day lives. In the case of therapy dogs, the skills taught to the dogs can be very varied depending on the type of therapy in which they work. For example, the training received by a dog who helps in a therapy session for a child with autism won’t be the same as that of a dog who helps in a therapy session for a female victim of male violence. In the case of the former, the dog might be trained to do funny things like give their paw, roll over, play dead, etc. With the latter, the dog might only need to know how to sit still and stay calm during the session, and approach the patient when told to do so by the trainer.

They improve many people’s lives

Assistance and therapy dogs play an essential role in society. These dogs help to improve the lives of many people by carrying out specific tasks but this isn’t all they do. The emotional bond that is created between these dogs and their owners, or those who attend therapy sessions assisted by the dogs, improves the well-being of these individuals.

That’s why it is essential that the work done by these dogs continues, and that we support their participation in therapy and/or assistance programmes for people with physical or emotional difficulties.

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