Meet the “Superdogs”: Therapy, Service and Emotional-Support Dogs That Improve Life for Kids and Adults

We appreciate dogs for their intelligence, loyalty and trainability, but it is the more intangible, unquantifiable characteristics that we have come to value above all else.

Parker Barry

Animals have helped human beings in many capacities throughout history. Livestock has provided us with food and clothing, horses have transported us from place to place and birds have delivered messages for us.

Perhaps of all the animals that have assisted humans, none are as ever-present in modern life as dogs. Our canine companions have performed jobs and services for humans in countless environments around the world. We consider them partners — assisting law enforcement in K-9 units; rescuers — unearthing survivors following natural disasters; and even supervisors — herding sheep and other livestock.

However, the vital role that dogs play in the lives of humans extends far beyond the practical. Dogs have also served as our loyal companions, our trusted confidantes and, some might say, even our beloved significant other. In the past decade, pet funerals and “aftercare” services available for pets, including dogs, have become a booming business.

Though we appreciate dogs for their intelligence, loyalty and trainability — as evidenced by the many services they perform for us each and every day — it is the more intangible, unquantifiable characteristics that we have come to value above all else. It is not simply a matter of what dogs do for us, but it is how they make us feel. Dogs are good for us! Research has shown that dogs can positively influence our overall sense of well-being, improve our health and enhance mental strength.

It is not simply a matter of what dogs do for us, but it is how they make us feel.

Who are these superdogs? Let’s move beyond the traditional roles dogs have played and look at the softer side of canine careers.

  • Therapy Dogs. Therapy dogs can be found offering comfort and love in nursing homes, hospitals, therapy clinics, schools and many other facilities. They can be virtually any breed, but must be evaluated and receive training and typically work in teams with their owners. Reading dogs, in particular, have become more visible in schools. Because dogs are great listeners, both children and adults who struggle with reading find that reading to a dog is a pleasure. Dogs are nonjudgmental, empathic and loveable listeners. Grab a book, snuggle up and get reading!
  • Service Dogs. People recognize these dogs by the vests that they typically wear while on duty. Service dogs have been individually trained to perform a specific task for individuals who have physical, cognitive or hidden disabilities. They undergo rigorous training and are protected by laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act in all 50 states. They can be trained to open doors, alert owners when a seizure is imminent, pick up dropped objects, and other amazing tasks! Families who have children with autism and veterans diagnosed with PTSD are just two groups of people who have reported that their service dog has allowed them to live more independently. High-fives for Fido!
  • Emotional Support Dogs. Providing companionship and support to children and adults suffering from a variety of emotional and mental conditions are what these dogs do best. From dusk until dawn, their job is offering comfort and unconditional love to those with depression, anxiety, panic attacks and other disorders.

Jumah, a black lab, visits an elementary school in Brooklyn every day as part of the “Comfort Dog Pilot Program” in nearly 40 New York City public schools. Here, first-graders in read to Jumah. Special education teacher Christa Bee Wiggin says, “The dog doesn’t judge them; he doesn’t care if they make mistakes, so they feel more comfortable.” Photo and caption by Marj Kleinman.

Speech therapist Mary Vitale uses Jumah to motivate kindergarteners with special needs. They practice using a strong voice to give commands and using direct eye contact with him. They also pet him while speaking, increasing the fluidity of their speech. Photo and caption by Marj Kleinman.

Teacher Christa Bee Wiggin uses Jumah to teach social-emotional learning (SEL) using the “Mutt-i-grees Curriculum,” created by North Shore Animal League. Today’s lesson was about identifying needs. He is also used for crisis de-escalation, behavior intervention and emotional support. Photo and caption by Marj Kleinman.

Cristen Carson Reat is the co-founder and program director of BridgingApps, a program of Easter Seals Greater Houston. Cristen holds a M.A. degree from the University of Texas at Austin, graduated from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and is certified through the Assistive Technology Applications Program at California State University. She is the mother of two sons, one of whom has Down syndrome. Cristen is a founding member of Toca Boca’s diversity advisory board.

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