Pets Are the Best Medicine: How Service & Therapy Dogs Heal Those in Need

In honor of National Service Dog Month, we're taking a look at how assistance dogs bring comfort and joy to everyone they help and how you can get involved in the important work they do.
By Leah Lopez Cardenas
September 01, 2020

Service and therapy dogs are the superheroes of the pet universe. Depending on the needs of their owner or the community they serve, these incredible animals are trained to aid in times of crisis, perform tasks to increase their handler's independence, and can even act as a life saving alert system. Right now, as wildfires rage in California, Kerith, a licensed therapy dog, is on the ground, working to provide support to first responders. A service animal's place alongside the people they serve is as fascinating as the myriad tasks they perform, with deep roots in the human-animal connection that's evolved over centuries between people and dogs.

To honor these incredible animals and the joy, independence, and comfort they bring their owners and others, Daily Paws is shining a light on the pets who do double duty helping people heal. From service dogs who aid their handlers through daily life with a disability, to therapy pets that provide comfort to those in need, we interviewed trainers and handlers across the country to find out how these animal-handler teams help, heal, and offer hope to those around them.

Helping Humans Heal

For Frannie Kass, a 20-year-old student at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va., juggling the stress of college classes and dorm life was made even more difficult when trying to manage her disability. The college sophomore says her anxiety and depression, including social anxiety and agoraphobia, made it difficult to enjoy life outside her home. “I couldn't really go out and do things at all,” she says. “I would stay in my house or go to places I already knew, and I didn’t like going places by myself.”

But a psychiatric service dog named Lexi changed everything.

In the summer of 2019, Kass was paired with Lexi, a now-4-year-old goldendoodle service dog. Trained at Pawsitivity Service Dogs in St. Paul, Minn., Lexi knows how to provide pressure therapy for her handler if she starts showing signs of a panic attack. When Lexi recognizes the signs of distress for her owner, like a change in her breathing, the dog pushes on Kass's legs with her paws.

“She does this with even just a slight difference in my breathing because we know each other so well now,” Kass explains. She says that Lexi is also trained to intervene for different behavior interruptions, meaning the dog is able to recognize and distract her from self-harming if the need arises.

Left: College student Frannie Kass struggles with social anxiety and agoraphobia, making it challenging to even leave her home. Being paired with service dog partner Lexi has changed her life. Photo: FRANNIE KASS
Right: Lexi, a 4-year-old goldendoodle, was trained to provide pressure therapy for Frannie Kass if she begins to experience a panic attack. Photo: FRANNIE KASS

Kass's experience is certainly not unique. For 15-year-old Brianna Heim and her service dog partner, Emily, life has changed dramatically in the past 6 years. Brianna was born with a rare metabolic disorder that affects her gross motor skills and speech. But after she saw a commercial with service dogs with a person in a wheelchair, she got excited about the prospect of a service dog of her own and was matched with Emily in 2014.

The pair has made big strides since. “Essentially since getting Emily, Brianna's speech has come a long way. She tries to speak clear enough so Emily understands commands. She also has a great speech therapist that bases her lessons around Emily's commands, and that definitely provides her some comfort and confidence,” her mother, Wendy Heim, says.

And Emily's helping Brianna cope with unexpected emotional challenges as well. Like many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wendy says Brianna misses having a sense of normalcy in the world. But despite having to social distance, Brianna still finds hope with Emily by her side.

“Bri misses her friends a ton, but Emily is there to play with her," Wendy says. "She also has helped with her mental health. Brianna works on different skills physically, so she plays with a toy with Emily and it’s a tug-of-war type thing that helps Brianna work on her grip and her strength. She really thrives on the fact that she has Emily by her side to comfort her and help her get through hard times.”

“It’s all about increasing independence for us," says Sarah Birman, national director of training and client services and certified service dog instructor at Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, Calif. "The commands we train the dogs to do allow our clients to go about their daily lives without having to rely on other people so much."

The U.S. Department of State reported in 2016 that approximately 500,000 animals are in service across the United States, helping people with physical or emotional disabilities overcome challenges and live richer day-to-day lives. Add to that the number of therapy and emotional support animals that aid communities and individuals and it's easy to see just how much humans rely on their assistance and what a difference they make in the lives of those they serve.

The History of Service Dogs

The use of animals to assist humans in need certainly isn’t a new practice. Though some say the practice of using a dog to assist the blind dates back to early first century AD, the first formal attempts to train dogs to aid visually impared people likely began in Paris, France, 1780 at the Quinze-Vingts National Ophthalmology Hospital, then a hospital for the blind. Nearly 40 years later, Johann Wilhelm Klein, founder of the Institute for the Education of the Blind in Vienna, mentioned the concept of the guide dog in his book on educating blind people and described his method for training dogs. The practice of formally training dogs as guides for the blind began to slowly spread across Europe, but really picked up steam during and after WWI as thousands of soldiers returned home blinded by poison gas or other trauma. 

Dr. Gerhard Stalling, a German doctor working with recovering soldiers, began to explore the ways in which dogs could be used to help blind patients, and in August 1916 he opened the world’s first guide dog school for the blind in Oldenburg. Over the next decade, the school expanded and opened branches in other German cities, training up to 600 dogs per year and providing animals to people all over the world, including the U.S.

Unfortunately, trying to train that many animals lead to some issues. Dog quality slipped and in 1926, the school shut down. But by that point, other successful training schools had started. Among them was a school in Switzerland, founded by a wealthy American woman named Dorothy Harrison Eustis. Eustis had been training dogs for military and police and spent several months studying guide dog training methods at a center near Berlin, Germany.

Morris Frank is often credited with kicking off the assistance dog movement in the U.S. after opening a guide dog training facility in Morristown, N.J., in 1929.
Buddy, a trained German shepherd, is shown here in 1933 leading his blind handler and trainer Morris Frank across a street in New York City during a demonstration of the dog's intelligence. Photo: BETTMANN / GETTY

Eustis was so impressed by what she saw and learned that she wrote an article about it for the Saturday Evening Post in 1927, and that article inspired blind American Morris Frank to seek out Eustis with the intent of introducing guide dogs to America. Frank took his German shepherd Buddy to Switzerland to train as a guide dog and, upon returning to the U.S., Frank established the Seeing Eye School in Morristown, N.J., in 1929. Other service dog organizations followed and a movement was born.

Yet despite a long history of helping people in need, service dogs weren’t legally recognized until the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990. At the time, the ADA defined service animals 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.” Under the ADA, public accommodations must permit people with disabilities to use service animals.

Sadly, widespread understanding of the rights of service dogs and their handlers is still lacking. Kass says it's exhausting to have to educate others about how to properly interact with a service dog and her rights under the ADA.

“You don't need papers or registration if you have a service dog, but most people don't know that, so I've been harassed.” Kass says she has to add extra travel time to her day knowing someone could interrupt her from getting where she needs to be on time. “It's really exhausting to fight for essentially your right to have your dog with you. It’s like having medical equipment. They’re wonderful, but it's hard to have a service dog for those reasons.”

Left: Brianna Heim—shown here with her mother Wendy, father Scott, and service dog Emily—was born with a rare metabolic disorder that affects her gross motor skills and speech. Photo: PROVIDED BY WENDY HEIM
Center: Having Emily means Brianna is less reliant on her parents and can experience the independence teenage girls crave. Photo: WENDY HEIM
Right: Brianna and Emily shared a close bond from the beginning. When visiting with the many qualified service dogs during the selection process, Wendy says Emily chose Brianna as much as they chose her. Photo: WENDY HEIM

For the Heim family, it’s been a similar experience. “A lot of people don't understand or care about the boundary. She is a working dog, not just a pet that gets to go out in public,” Wendy Heim says of her daughter’s experience. “I know she's a very sweet looking dog and you want to pet her. However, she does have a job and needs to remain focused.” (See: Here's Why It's Not OK to Pet Service Dogs & What to Do Instead)

And it doesn't help that some people tried to take advantage of the ADA's original broad definition of service animals, claiming that their pet snakes, hamsters, or parrots perform service tasks and therefore qualified for protections under the law. In March 2011, the Department of Justice clarified the definition, specifying that only dogs can be recognized as service animals (and miniature horses, though that's much less common). The dog must be individually trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability.

That means that while other animal-human pairs may provide undeniable comfort to their owners or others—like therapy dogs and emotional support animals—they do not have the same legal rights as a service dog. But that doesn't make their work less important.

Spreading Love & Comfort

If you’re familiar with Des Moines, Iowa's Drake Bulldogs, then you may have heard of Griff, the university’s lovable live mascot. Griff took on the job in 2013 after the unexpected passing of the school's original live mascot, Porterhouse. Earlier this year, after seven years supporting students and encouraging smiles, Griff retired, and Griff’s best pal Griff II (aka George) stepped up to fill those big bulldog shoes, becoming the new Drake live mascot in July 2020.

Griff II, Drake University's live mascot, is a registered therapy dog called upon to support students through good times and bad and work with members of the community to provide emotional support. Photo: ERIN BELL, DRAKE UNIVERSITY

Part of Griff’s duty as the go-to Drake therapy dog is much-needed stress relief to university students during challenging times. And the students can’t get enough of him. “I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve encountered someone on campus and someone says, ‘Oh my gosh, I was having the worst day and this just changed it.’ Or, ‘This is exactly what I needed today’ [Therapy dogs] definitely make a difference every day in everything that they do,” says Erin Bell, Drake’s Associate Director of Marketing and dog mom to Griff I and Griff II.

But Griff’s not just around to celebrate the school’s wins. He’s there for emotional support when tragedy strikes, too. In 2018, the death of a student who lived in the school’s dormitory left many residents reeling. Griff was a shining light in the darkness the night the news was shared with students. “A lot of residents were in the lobby in a somber mood when [Erin] and Griff walked in,” Drake student Esther Gendler says. “Just seeing Griff and being able to pet him (and feed him pancakes) greatly impacted me and all of us and brought our community together in a time when we all really needed each other,” Gendler says.

Not only does Griff II spend his days perusing the campus, but he also makes a big impact off-campus in the community. As a registered therapy dog, Griff II brings joy to students year-round, including elementary-age kids. “Part of the mission of the live mascot is to get out in the community and be an ambassador for Drake,” Bell says. “It’s always been important to me that they become therapy dogs because it's something additional we can do to make a positive impact in the community.”

Photo: ERIN BELL, DRAKE UNIVERSITY

The positive impact a therapy dog can have on children with disabilities is huge. Ryan Barcus, an elementary school teacher at Delaware Elementary in the Des Moines area, explains. “Social skills are critical for elementary students. The students in my room have conditions such as severe autism and Down syndrome. Griff is the first dog that many of them have had a close encounter with. Each year before he visits, we work on social skills on how to act around a dog and how to pet it.” Barcus continues, “Usually within three or four visits all of the students feel comfortable getting close to him and petting him. That is a major breakthrough for these students.”

While the presence of COVID-19 means Griff II’s duties look a little different this year, his handler, Bell, plans to continue to have him present as much as possible, while ensuring safety and social distancing for everyone. No matter how rough it gets, Griff and animals like him will be there to bring the positive vibes.

But Griff can't do it all. According to a 2012 report released by the United States Census Bureau, about 56.7 million people—nearly 1 in 5—had a disability in 2010, "with more than half of them reporting the disability was severe." As America's Baby Boomer population continues to age, the number of people with vision impairment grows exponentially, creating even more demand for service dogs. That aging population is also at increased risk for diabetes and hearing loss, two other disabilities for which dogs are increasingly being trained to provide services. Add to that the growing number of children and adults managing emotional and psychiatric disabilities and it's clear to see why demand for service and therapy animals is at an all-time high.

Struggling to Meet the Demand

As individuals and organizations have increasingly become aware of the value service and therapy animals can provide, it's become nearly impossible for training organizations to meet the need. Lack of qualified trainers, financial constraints, and high demand mean there’s a shortage of qualified service dogs nationwide.

As a nonprofit, places like Guide Dogs for the Blind train and pair service dog teams at no cost to the handler. Even the dog’s veterinary care, food, and enrichment items are paid for. That means, without enough financial resources, the demand for these dogs can greatly outweigh the supply of dogs available at any one time. 

Not every dog is cut out for the service or therapy animal life, reducing the possible pool of animals that can be trained. Therapy dogs have to go through extensive obedience training and have the natural born temperament to make them comfortable and appropriately behaved around large groups of people. (See: Can Your Dog Be a Therapy Dog? See If Your Pup Has the Right Stuff)

Service dogs are even more difficult to train, as they need to be obedient, have a naturally calm temperament, and also be highly intelligent and trainable to do various tasks with their handler. It’s not an easy road. And training certainly doesn’t happen overnight. Training a dog and the dog’s handler can take up to two years.

Brianna Heim waited that long to meet Emily, though their life together seemed destined to be. Canine Companions, the organization the Heim family worked with to get Brianna a service dog, had a social media contest to name a new litter of service-dog-in-training pups, and Emily was one of those puppies. "I remember sitting with Bri and we voted on the name ‘Emily’. And then here we were two years later, and Emily was our dog!" Wendy says.

When Emily had completed her training, the Heim family went to meet her and other prospective service dog matches. "They have you work with several dogs for the first several days and they watch how well you click,” Wendy explains. But the bond between Emily and Brianna was instant. “Emily from the get-go has understood Brianna's speech and her body movements. She understands everything Brianna wants and needs from her. Brianna’s speech isn't 100 percent clear and sometimes even my husband and I have trouble. It was very evident that they were meant to be together,” Wendy says.

David Burry, managing director at Compass Key Personal Service Dog Training, says that the dogs his organization is asked to train most often tend to be mobility dogs, medical alert dogs, psychiatric service dogs, or a combination of those things. Once the dog is trained to complete the tasks needed, they'll be able to help the handler navigate the world. For many service dog recipients, this provides them with a sense of stability and freedom.

Left: Nadir Mehta relies on his service dog partner Yamaha to help him live a full and independent life. Photo: PROVIDED BY NADIR MEHTA
Right: 8-year-old service dog Yamaha. Photo: NADIR MEHTA

That's a freedom Nadir Mehta wasn't sure he'd ever get back. Mehta, an engineer living in West Des Moines, Iowa, was diagnosed in 1995 with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), which is akin to macular degeneration. The condition affects eyesight similar to if a person was looking through a small peephole all the time, and reduces depth perception so that things like steps or ledges look like a smooth surface. In 2003, it started to become more difficult for Mehta to do things such as drive or see at night. From 2003–2013, Mehta used a white cane to navigate, but by then, his vision had become so bad that even with the cane, mobility was difficult.

In 2013, after an 8-month waiting period, Mehta was able to partner up with Yamaha, a black Lab and golden retriever mix (and a very good boy) from Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif. That’s when Mehta’s life was changed for the better. “Once you have a dog and use him instead of using a cane, it's a day and night type of situation. You can’t even compare. He goes with me everywhere now,” Mehta says.

Depending on the person, anyone who could benefit from a service dog partnership could be paired with many dogs in his or her lifetime. Mehta says that typically, when a service dog reaches 10 years of age and starts to have more difficulty with tasks, that’s when training organizations try to find another dog for the handler. It creates a constant need for new dogs to be trained and animal/handler matches to be made, exacerbating the demands on an already-strained system.

But the good news is that anyone can make a difference. Assistance dog organizations always need volunteer puppy raisers to provide initial obedience training, socialization, and basic real-world scenarios for future service-dogs-in-training. Puppy raisers typically teach the future service dog basic commands and socialize them in public during their first year or so before service dog training begins. To find out how you can help, either through financial assistance or by volunteering your time, reach out to your nearest assistance dog training school.

And, even when they are no longer able to work as service dogs, the bond between a dog and her handler is deep. Just ask Kass, who says that when she’s off the clock, Lexi is just like any other lovable, social dog. “She likes to snuggle and she's very much a ‘people dog,’” Kass says, adding that one of her favorite things about Lexi is how much she enjoys attention—except when she's trying to work.

“The only funny quirk about Lexi is if I'm typing on my laptop, she shoves her nose in between my arm and the keyboard. She doesn’t like when I ignore her for too long!”

If one thing’s for certain, this duo will continue making the most out of their time in college. That is, if Kass can convince the fun-loving pup to let her get her homework turned in on time.