More than man’s best friend

Therapy and PTSD dogs can offer comfort to those in need

By Starr Cunningham

As the proud owner of an almost 10-year-old shih tzu named Isabelle Chocolate Dobson (aka Izzy), I know just how alluring a fluffy white pup can be to a child. Much to Izzy’s delight, children at the park play with her when they want a little canine companionship. Fortunately, Izzy loves attention and is used to interacting with youngsters. But as we all know, that’s not always the case.

Teaching your children how to approach a stranger’s dog is imperative. The little ones impress me when they ask, “May I pat your dog?” well before they get too close or bend down to Izzy’s level. A dog bit me when I was a child and I quickly learned you can never be too careful.

Today, there are more dogs in our community that come with rules that go beyond the basics. Therapy and service dogs are more prevalent in our schools, shopping centres, and public areas. Here at the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, we work with many PTSD service dog handlers and they all share the same message: Please don’t interact with a dog that’s wearing a vest.

The reasons are simple. Service dogs are working dogs so don’t distract them. They’re specifically trained to react to their handler’s emotions and needs. A handler will sometimes agree to letting his or her dog be patted, but ask them first. In many cases, the handler will have a command to give his or her dog to let the animal know it’s okay to be touched by a stranger.

It’s also important to talk to your children about not approaching a handler and service dog team from behind. An unanticipated encounter can cause stress and fear for both the animal and the handler. 

From a medical point of view, it’s inappropriate to ask handlers why they have a service dog. There are many reasons this may be necessary, and don’t expect all handlers to talk openly about their personal medical conditions.

Starr with a service dog that is in training.

Beyond service dogs, there are also more therapy dogs making the rounds these days. They’re trained to connect with people. Their mission is less disciplined. They interact with humans to provide feelings of unconditional love, comfort and calmness. You’ll often find them roaming the halls of nursing homes, university student centres, libraries, hospitals, and community centres. 

St. John Ambulance offers a therapy dog program. It started back in 1992 as a pilot project and now boasts nearly 3,000 therapy dog teams that visit thousands of people each year. Its goal is to improve lives by bringing joy and comfort to the sick, lonely, and people in need of a friendly visit. There are even special programs such as Paws 4 Stories that help children learn to read (by reading to a therapy dog) without judgment or a fear of being wrong. 

There’s no disputing the mental health benefits of dogs. Izzy isn’t a service or therapy dog, but she certainly provides me with many mental health benefits. She’s always happy to see me and that makes me happy, too. She also seems to instinctually know when I’m feeling a little blue. That’s when she typically comes looking to be snuggled. I can’t imagine not having her as part of our family. It brings me great joy to watch her bring big smiles to the faces of neighbourhood youngsters at the park. 

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you can teach your children about the new ways dogs are making a difference in our communities. Whether a service dog, therapy dog, or regular ole Izzy dog, they all come with special abilities to create laughter and love. 

To learn more about the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia’s PTSD First Responder Service Dog Program visit

To learn more about the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program visit