by Lauren Johnson
Nothing evokes a sense of ease quite like a soft, smiling, tail-wagging dog looking up for a bit of affection. While numerous dog lovers are familiar with this feeling, many may not know how it can bring greater therapeutic benefits to others.
Meet Therapy Dogs International (TDI), a non-profit organization based in Flanders, New Jersey, whose mission is to bring health and well-being through visits by four-legged friends to institutions such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, memory care facilities and wherever else therapy dogs are needed.
“When people encounter a therapy dog, their mood immediately improves—they become more relaxed, and their blood pressure drops,” says Bob Wharton, director of TDI Bucks County Chapter #294.
Founded in 1976, Therapy Dogs International has expanded to 23,000 dog/handler teams with nearly 300 chapters across the country and continues to grow. Wharton, who began this chapter only in 2015, already has 49 therapy dogs and handlers that not only service Bucks County, but also Philadelphia, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties. He expects the number of dogs to increase substantially in the coming year due to its growing response.
Wharton first became interested in Therapy Dogs International after having acquired a golden retriever with a wonderful disposition that he wanted to share. “Any dog can be a therapy dog as long as they have the right temperament. Our therapy dogs range from chihuahuas to Saint Bernards to rottweilers,” Wharton says, noting that therapy dogs have to pass a rigorous obedience test in order to become certified.
According to Wharton, the immediate effect therapy dogs have on people is remarkable to see. “One time we were at a location where a patient began having a breakdown. Their blood pressure was sky-high, and the nurse was having trouble calming her down so she motioned for me to bring the dog over to see if that would help. The patient began petting the dog and within 15 minutes she began to relax and her blood pressure came down. It’s incredible to witness these results, especially when it doesn’t involve medical intervention.”
Through TDI, Wharton has also seen people get over their long-time fear of dogs. “The temperament of a therapy dog is so gentle and non-intimidating. It’s wonderful to see someone’s reservations be replaced by affection and interaction,” he says.
Therapy dogs have had a wide range of applications and benefits, from bringing comfort and companionship, to nursing homes, to helping build confidence and communication among young children.
“Therapy dogs have worked one-on-one with children who are reserved to participate in class. We start by having the child read to the dog which helps them not only become better readers, but also get over the fear of reading out loud in front of their peers,” says Wharton. “We’ve also used therapy dogs to work in the classroom with autistic children, and have seen positive effects in the way they help encourage response and communication. It’s incredibly rewarding to see how such a simple tool can have such a positive effect.”