Odin and his owner Don Horton spread love at Longs Peak Hospital.

Odin and his owner Don Horton spread love at Longs Peak Hospital. Odin doesn’t just bring a smile to patients, but staff as well. (Photo courtesy: UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital).

“As soon as they see him, their body language changes, as if by magic.”

Just reading emotions and faces make it easy to believe these dogs make a difference.

Just reading emotions and faces make it easy to believe these dogs make a difference. (Photo courtesy: UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital).

One undeniable truth about Coloradans – we love our dogs. 

Sure, there are some people around here who aren’t huge fans, but cliches aren’t created unless they’re based on truth. And the fact remains that you can’t throw a stick in this state without a pooch wanting to chase it down.

Many dog owners love their pets so much that they want to share the joy. That’s why several organizations offer therapy dog services.

Right fit?

So, how do you know if Spot is the right fit to bring joy (and improved mental health) to more than just your home?

Tony Reyelts, the top dog with the Longmont Library’s DEAR (Dogs Enjoy Afternoon Reading) reading, answered the question with a pair of his own: Does your dog enjoy meeting new people? And does your dog enjoy being in public and handle unpredictable/chaotic situations appropriately?

“In a perfect world, we’d be able to ask our dogs whether it is a job they would like to do,” Reyelts said. “After all, we regularly ask kids, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and it’s always fun to hear their answers. Since dogs can’t answer directly, we have to figure it out from observation.”

Reyelts said not only is each dog different, but there are all kinds of different opportunities for therapy dogs. For instance, the DEAR program (held the second Sunday of each month between 2-3 p.m.) focuses on providing children a chance to read to dogs. This allows children to read without pressure and at their own pace. As such, the best DEAR dogs are comfortable and happy working in a big room with lots of children.

Common traits

Many therapy dogs will have similar traits to each other, but some traits can be drastically different depending on the setting. For instance, the pet therapy program at Longs Peak Hospital seeks dogs that are calm and not easily distracted, are obedient and look to their handlers for direction, and love to be petted by several people, over and over.

In other words, according to the UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital pet therapy letter, “the first person to interact with the dog is as important and receives as much affection as the 10th.”

Don Horton, a pet therapy volunteer at Longs Peak Hospital along with his dog, Odin, loves the concept of helping ease others’ ailments by sharing the love of his pooch.

“As soon as they see him, their body language changes, as if by magic,” Horton said. “Immediately they are more relaxed, open, and receptive … There is an ease and a joy with this interaction. Conversation flows freely and openly. My dog offers immediate and spontaneous love and acceptance, without judgment, regardless of who you are or what you believe. How often do we get to experience that?”

Therapy Dog at UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital

(Photo courtesy: UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital).

Improved health

There’s plenty of data to support the benefits of pet therapy. But just reading emotions and faces make it easy to believe these dogs make a difference.

“It improves mental health and physical health,” Horton said. “Anxiety and worry recede. Pain is reduced. Blood pressure goes down. The list goes on and on. I can’t see all of this, but what I do see is the faces of patients and guests that are now radiant and smiling.”

Reyelts offered one other piece of advice:

“I always encourage handlers to explore the environment without their dog first so they can consider how their dog will react before bringing the dog into a new environment.”

Different kinds of support

One area of confusion for many is the different ways dogs and other animals can help.

Carri King-Bussard, a psychologist who uses dogs to assist her in work, is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Colorado who also trains mental health professionals who are interested in integrating animal-assisted practice into their work.

On one of her websites, Professional Therapy Dogs of Colorado, she explains the differences between therapy dogs, service dogs and emotional service animals (supportive pets). 

Therapy dogs, according to the site, are well-mannered, affectionate dogs paired with handlers, preferably in the mental health field to provide support. Service dogs, meanwhile, receive intensive, customized training to help people imposed by limitations due to a disability, giving them greater independence. There are also emotional support animals. These have likely not received any specialist training but are there to provide comfort and love during times of stress.

Owner beware

King-Bussard and her website do warn of some obstacles and scams.

“There is no ‘official’ national or international registry for service dogs or ESAs,” the website states. “There is a predatory market out there that sells IDs, vests, provider letters, and other gear and promises ‘service dog certification’ and all the related privileges, but this is a scam.”

And, as a reminder, King-Bussard says not to pet service dogs.

“This distracts from their critically important job, which puts their person at risk.”

So, if you think your dog has the right personality and temperament to spread joy, love and healing to others, there are plenty of options available.  


By Ross Maak, Longmont Magazine