What exactly do therapy dogs do?

By Dr Jess Hill

Occupational therapists are increasingly incorporating therapy dogs into their practice; however, many still ask the question, what exactly do therapy dogs do?

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) involves a trained health professional working in the scope of their profession while incorporating an animal to support achievement in therapy goals. For occupational therapists, AAT is incorporated as adjunct to other forms of evidence-based therapy to facilitate client engagement. Therefore, the way in which a therapy dog is incorporated into therapy is dependent on the individual client and their goals, as well as the specific skills of the therapy dog. Below are two case examples of how a therapy dog might be incorporated into an occupational therapy session with paediatric clients.


Elijah was a six-year-old autistic boy who experienced oral sensitivity. He was refusing to brush his teeth, which had increasingly become a concern to his mother as he was starting to lose his baby teeth and grow his adult teeth. Elijah was motivated by animals and had his own dog whom he adored, named Max. From his first session working with the therapy dog Loki, he was motivated to show the OT that he knew how to care for a dog including getting Loki’s water and giving him a brush. Elijah was also very interested to hear that the OT brushed Loki’s teeth and like Elijah, he didn’t like it.

Together, Max and the OT were able to explore different types of toothbrushes (soft, medium and firm bristle, different colours and Marvel themed), as well as different flavoured toothpastes (dog friendly). After testing different brushes and toothpastes, Max chose a soft bristle Marvel brush and a peanut butter toothpaste. They then discussed how many times Loki would have his front and side teeth brushed. Max decided on five times each. Max then assisted the OT to brush Loki’s teeth, as discussed to check that Loki was happy with this decision.

While working through this process with Loki, Max decided that he too wanted to use a soft bristle brush and wanted to find a ‘bubble-gum’ flavoured toothpaste. Max also decided that he would brush his side and front teeth five times each. Max then created a chart for both he and Loki where they could record every day when they brushed their teeth to bring back to the next session.

By the next session, Elijah and his mum had gone to the shops and purchased the toothbrush and toothpaste discussed and returned with a completed chart. Elijah’s mother also reported that he had begun to brush his teeth for longer than five times each.


Emmerson was an eight-year-old autistic girl in year four. Emmerson’s mother and her teacher had reported she had increasingly begun having difficulty with emotional regulation, particularly in social situations when things did not go her way. She had previously been seeing a psychologist; however, her mother explained she had been having trouble with engaging as she would “shut down” every time emotions were mentioned.

Emmerson loved animals, especially dogs, and although she wanted her own dog, this was not possible as her family were renting a small unit with no backyard. In the first session with the OT and her therapy dog Elsa, Emmerson and Elsa formed a strong bond. Emmerson was motivated to learn all she could about Elsa, such as where she slept, her favourite food, if Elsa had siblings, and her favourite games.

When working with Emmerson, the OT introduced the Zones of Regulation program. This initially began by talking about Elsa’s emotions when in the different coloured zones, as well as the different triggers that made her experience these emotions. This then progressed to discussing Elsa’s body clues that demonstrated she was feeling these emotions. Eventually, Emmerson and Elsa worked on developing calming strategies for Elsa to assist her when she was moving to the yellow zone, to help prevent her from going to the red zone.

Throughout this process as Emmerson assisted Elsa to learn about her emotions, the same process was applied to Emmerson, helping her to better understand her emotions, triggers, and later use of strategies. Emmerson’s motivation to learn about the therapy dog assisted to neutralise tricky conversations and facilitated the conversation between her and the OT.

When incorporating a therapy dog into their practice, occupational therapists should ask themselves, ‘what would I typically do when working with this client?’, and then ‘how might I creatively incorporate my therapy dog to support client engagement?’

Please note all occupational therapists should receive appropriate training and have their dogs assessed prior to incorporating AAT into their practice. For further information and insights on incorporating animal-assisted therapy into your practice please visit https://animaltherapies.org.au and follow @winnies_therapydog_journey on Instagram.


About the author

Dr Jess Hill is a Lecturer in Occupational Therapy at The University of Queensland and has eight years of experience working as an animal-assisted therapist with children and adolescents. Jess completed her PhD at The University of Queensland, exploring the efficacy of canine-assisted OT with autistic children. Jess has continued her research in the field of human-animal interaction including animal-assisted therapy, assistance animals and companion animals publishing in numerous peer reviewed journals, as well as contributing to several book chapters. Jess was recently recognised with OTA's 2023 Early Career Researcher Award.

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