Therapy dog with children

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Therapy Dogs


What is a therapy dog? Are they working dogs? What do they do exactly and who do they help?

There’s a lot of questions surrounding therapy dogs.

To help get some answers, we caught up with Anna Armstrong, the Therapy Dog Coordinator for St. John Ambulance in Oakville, Ontario.

What is a Therapy Dog?

Anna: Therapy dogs bring joy and comfort to the sick, lonely and those in need of a friendly visit.  By touching, feeling, and cuddling with these kind dogs, people get both comfort and companionship when it’s needed most.

I’ve been coordinating the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program for nearly five years, and I also pay people visits with my own therapy dog Zoe, an eight year-old standard poodle.

Are Therapy Dogs Classified as Working Dogs?

Anna: Our dogs are working dogs but they don't have the same designation as other service dogs. They cannot go into restaurants as guide dogs, for example, and can only enter facilities where it is prearranged and permission has been granted.

What are the Benefits of a Therapy Dog?

Anna: Therapy Dog services help improve the quality of life for those in need.  They provide comfort, stress relief, and distraction from pain.  As well, a therapy dog can help increase social engagement, get people participating more, talking more, and most importantly smiling more.

What is the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program?

Anna: The St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program started in June, 1992 as a pilot program and today includes nearly 3,000 volunteer Therapy Dog teams who visit thousands of people every year. 

Where do Therapy Dogs Visit People?

Anna: Mostly hospitals, senior residences or care facilities, schools, libraries and community centres.  Here in Oakville Zoe and I visit the hospital’s psychiatric, rehabilitation and the children's wards.  We also visit the Ian Anderson House Hospice and Lighthouse for Grieving Children.

What are the Requirements for a St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog?

Anna: In order to qualify for our program, a dog must be well trained, calm, and unafraid of groups of people or sudden noises. They cannot jump up and must engage with people in a friendly, calming way.

There are a series of tests that the dog must pass, and then upon successful completion they are assigned a facility to visit. If the owner and their dog wish to visit children, they first must complete 40 successful visits with adults.

What are the Requirements for the Dog Owner?

Anna: Once their dog has met the requirements of the program, each volunteer must wear the St. John Ambulance uniform of a red or white shirt and black slacks when they go on their visits. The therapy dog wears a St. John Ambulance scarf or vest and therapy dog tag. They are asked to commit to one hour weekly to visiting but most do much more than that and many visit more than one facility. The volunteers in our program are also fully insured.

What Breeds Make the Best Therapy Dogs?

Anna: Our dogs are all breeds, big and small, as there is no particular breed that makes a better therapy dog. It's all about the dog’s temperament, an acceptance of the situation, and that the person you are visiting for that moment is the most important person in the room.

How do I request a visit from a Therapy Dog or Get More Info on the Program?

Anna: You can request a visit for a therapy dog here.