Therapy Dogs Aide After Mass Shootings

Therapy dogs are a powerful aide used today to help those suffering from a range of conditions including people in emotional distress, those dealing with mental health issues, and even after mass shootings.

Pat Coglianese, President of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, one of the largest groupings of therapy dogs in the United States, says their dogs have been in schools and hospitals after every mass shooting in the U.S.

“Hospitals call us when there is a large influx of patients. We’re there after the disasters,” said Coglianese.

She says she sees a miracle every day when the therapy dogs are in contact with a person in emotional distress. “I was visiting a child with autism and the child was non-verbal and had never spoken a word in his life, then while he was petting the dog he looked up at his father, and said ‘Daddy.’ The reward is unmeasurable,” said Coglianese.

“I’ve seen soldiers with PTSD and at first they didn’t recognize the dog and then after a few weeks they can start talking about their experience in war.”

The Alliance of Therapy Dogs is an all-volunteer based organization that teaches people how to train their dogs to become a certified therapy dog.

ATD’s goal is to provide testing, registration, support and insurance for members who are involved in volunteer animal-assisted activities. These activities can include visits to hospitals, schools, nursing homes and even airports. Since 1990, the organization has grown to almost 17,000 members nationwide including Puerto Rico and Canada.

The trend is an indicator of the growing use and value of therapy dogs.

“12 years ago we had to call venues and everyone was afraid to let the dogs in their venues. Everyone was afraid of allergies. Now it’s completely flipped,” Coglianese said. “We have difficult times finding enough members to help. It’s a good problem to have.”

Registering your pup ration costs $30 a year and owners and their dogs are covered by insurance. For example, if a person trips over a therapy dog and tries to sue the owner, ATD will cover it.

All dogs go through a testing process to make sure the dog has the right temperament for therapy work. After the test, an ATD trainer (called an observer) monitors the owner and the dog during three visits to facilities, two of them at medical facilities. During these visits the trainer instructs the owner and the dog on the art of visiting.

Therapy vs. Service Dogs

There is a difference between a therapy dog and a service dog and the two terms are not interchangeable. ATD does not include service dogs in their network because they do a completely different job. Service dogs are trained to perform tasks and to do work that eases their handlers’ disabilities. Therapy dogs also receive training like this but their responsibilities are to provide psychological and physiological therapy to individuals other than their handlers. These dogs have stable temperaments and easy-going personalities. Therapy dogs visit hospitals, rehab programs, senior centers, schools, groups homes and hospices. They do not, however, have the same legal status as service dogs. Some institutions offer therapy dogs access on a case-by-case basis for the benefit of patients and customers, but the handlers of the therapy dogs do not have the same rights to be accompanied by these dogs in places where pets are not permitted. Service dogs have much more access and are not considered just ‘pets.’ Service dogs help their disabled partners attain safety and independence with their training, and most have a ‘no petting’ policy.

-Erin O’Donnell reporting

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