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Service Dogs: Pets for Mental and Physical Health

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English review by Eric Major

In early 2022, I had a serious health issue that resulted in other complications. This period was challenging for me, mainly because I had to stay in hospitals for six months. To help patients feel better, there are planned activities, such as music, painting, handicrafts, clown therapy, board games, and video games. The one that caught my attention the most was the visit of service dogs, and it made me think of what difference that can make for not only the patients but for staff as well.

Speaking of difference, just over three years ago, when we were at the residence for the elderly where my father-in-law lived, we were impressed when we saw him happy with a dog on his lap. Joseph Major never had a pet and wasn’t the type to have one, but that service dog helped his mental health.

These experiences made me want to write an article about service dogs.

Several animals have been used for animal-assisted therapy, such as horses, cats, dolphins, goats, and alpacas, with the most common types being dog-assisted therapy and equine-assisted therapy.

service dogs make a difference

Dogs have been used as a therapeutic resource by many medical professionals over the last few centuries. In the late 19th century, for example, the founder of modern nursing Florence Nightingale observed that small pets helped reduce anxiety and improve recovery for children and adults living in psychiatric institutions. Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud began using his own pet dog to improve communication with his psychiatric patients in the 1930s.

Zootherapy brings physical and mental benefits to patients

Therapy animals offer many benefits to people and patients. For example, therapy dogs help patients participate in physical activities. They also help to encourage them to have cognitive, social, and communication goals.

Joseph Major is happy with his service dog on his lap. (Photo: personal archive)


One organization that offers therapy dog and cat visitation programs for seniors and youth in Canada is Therapeutic Paws of Canada (TPOC).

Founded in 2002 by Jude Sauvé in Hawkesbury, Ontario, its mission is to improve the quality of life and health through the animal/human bond – “We are a wholly volunteer-run organization with teams across the country and rely solely on donations to keep us operational,” says Amanda Di Luch, a TPOC volunteer since 2015, and the current Director of Communications and Public Relations since 2020.

According to Amanda, any dog can be a therapy dog, they just need to have the right temperament, “They have to be good with people and other dogs and be very calm and patient.” In fact, a great temperament made her dog Bella, now 14 years old, become a therapy dog in 2015, “She always had a great temperament and joining TPOC was a way for us to be volunteers and support the community.”

Pacientes jovens, adultos e idosos recebem a visita de um cão de serviço.  Cachorros da raça Labrador Retriever são muito usados como cão de terapia.
Hospital patients receive a visit from a Labrador Retriever, used as a therapy dog. (Photo: personal archive)

While therapy dogs are not limited to any size or breed, common breeds used in therapy dog application and research include the Golden Retriever and the Labrador Retriever. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are considered natural therapy dogs as they were bred to be companion dogs – “Anyone can benefit from visits with a therapy dog or cat. Petting an animal has been shown to reduce stress-related hormones and improve physical and mental well-being and quality of life,” says Amanda.

Petting a service dog reduces stress and improves well-being

Although TPOC does not provide any training services for therapy dogs and cats, they do assessments to see if the dog or cat is fit to join the organization. Amanda says that many people choose to receive training elsewhere before these assessments. Training is not required to join the organization’s programs.

Speaking of programs, the main ones offered by TPOC are:

Paws with Love to Share, in which they visit seniors in nursing homes and long-term care centers or patients in hospitals; Paws Room, where they set up pet therapy rooms in post-secondary schools or workplaces for students and staff to de-stress; Pet Support, in which highly trained animals and volunteers provide comfort to victims and witnesses as they testify in court for disturbing and violent crimes; Paws for Comfort – pets visit people who have experienced trauma or bereavement, including first responders; Paws to Read – teams of pets and volunteers visit schools and libraries to help children learn to read; and Paws-Abilities, where they visit individuals with various mental and physical disabilities.

The therapy animal can bring a smile, brighten the day and ease tensions

These programs help many people and, in many ways. “We observed in the people we visited that seeing a therapy dog or cat can put a smile on their face, brighten their day, or calm them down in a stressful situation” – she says  – “It even helps kids improve their reading skills by reading to a non-judgmental and calming pet.” – Continues the volunteer, who tells that they had a stroke patient who spoke to one of their therapy dogs after months without speaking, not even to his family, “The family was shocked and very grateful that they were talking again!”.

Paws to play and smile (Photo: Therapeutic Paws of Canada)

On the TPOC Instagram profile, there are many stories of people who have been touched by the organization.

Typically, the organization receives requests for services from long-term care centers, workplaces, schools, etc., but anyone can get in touch – “The best way to contact us is to visit our website ( and go to Contact Us – Team Leaders and get in touch with the Team Leader closest to you.”

Anyway, a simple meeting with a therapy dog puts a smile on the person’s face and makes a huge difference in their life, especially in the most difficult times.


Pets contribute a lot to people’s lives, so they should receive the love, care, and attention they deserve.

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