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Specialist Therapy Dogs Improve Patient Care

 In Canine-Assisted Warrior Therapy, Specialist Therapy Dogs

What is a Specialist Therapy Dog?

A specialist therapy dog is a very special type of assistance dog.  A Paws for Purple Hearts specialist therapy dog is professionally trained to help health and human services professionals in a variety of settings take their level of mental health care to new heights.

Our specialist therapy dogs help mental health professionals deliver clinical evaluations, interventions, and the treatment of Warrior patients and their family members more effectively. They are friendly, loveable dogs that enjoy interacting with people, making them perfect candidates to assist during therapy.

So, what exactly is a specialist therapy dog trained to do and how can they improve the quality of care provided to Warrior clients?

Working with Warriors

Specialist therapy dogs help to improve patient responsiveness, satisfaction and well-being as valued partners while working alongside mental health professionals.

“Our Paws for Purple Hearts specialist therapy dog has been amazing for our clients! She is a natural at her job and brings a smile to everyone’s face that meets her. I can’t imagine coming to work without her.” – VA Therapist in Northern California

Just like our service dogs, specialist therapy dogs go through about two and a half years of thorough training and preparation before being placed in a clinical setting. These highly trained dogs may perform certain tasks on command, or initiate helpful behaviors upon recognizing certain cues, in order to facilitate a patient’s treatment by increasing their comfort level and sense of well-being.

To improve the quality of care for their patients in the office or while making rounds, therapists use commands such as “visit” to ask their Paws for Purple Hearts dog to lay its head on a patient’s lap, or offer a friendly paw to greet a new Warrior client and help make them feel comfortable.  That’s impressive, but what is truly amazing is that the dogs are keenly aware of the emotional state of the patients, and are trained to engage in certain helpful behaviors without being prompted when they see someone in emotional distress.  For example, if someone is crying the dog will go to them, nudge their hands and offer a friendly mane to pet.   If someone is nervous and showing certain signs, the dog will come to them and lean up against them to show support.  These behaviors can make a real difference to ensuring successful care.

Who is eligible to receive a Specialist Therapy Dog?

A specialist therapy dog has one primary handler throughout its working life. Rather than working at a specific location as our facility dogs do, a specialist therapy dog may work in a variety of settings alongside their primary handler.

Any licensed, professional working in a mental health setting may be eligible for a Paws for Purple Hearts dog. Here are a few examples of specialists who may benefit from utilizing a dog for therapeutic intervention with Warriors:

  • Psychiatrist
  • Psychologist
  • Counselor
  • Social worker
  • Nurse
  • Therapist
  • Occupational Therapist

Application, Selection, and Training Process

If you’re interested in a specialist therapy dog, we invite you to fill out our Specialist Therapy Dog Application Request Form on our website. If we feel our dogs may meet the needs of your clients, we will invite you to take the next step and fill out an official application.  After the application is reviewed, we schedule an interview with PPH representatives.

Once a potential specialist therapy dog match has been identified, you will be contacted to begin finalizing paperwork and to schedule the specialist therapy dog training course with the dog. During training, our expert instructors will teach you to care for and handle your dog to maximize beneficial effectiveness. We may conduct this two-week training at a PPH site or at your facility, depending on the circumstances. Our specialist therapy dogs and training are provided free of charge; however, other expenses you may need to plan for include: transportation, housing, food, and entertainment expenses while attending the training course. After you graduate with your dog you will be responsible for the ongoing costs of caring for your new partner, which may include, but is not limited to: food, grooming, toys, other supplies, annual veterinary exam, vaccinations, and other incidental expenses.

Becoming a Client for Life

Once a dog is placed with you, you become a “client for life,” meaning we provide ongoing support for you and your dog for the remainder of the working partnership. You will be the prime contact person if support is needed from us regarding the dog’s health, behavior, temperament, and training. A Paws for Purple Hearts staff member dedicated to client services will be available to communicate with you whenever you need advice. We are ready to deploy our local professional trainers to consult with you and support your needs on an ongoing basis. At a minimum, we reach out for regular follow-ups each month for the first six months of placement, and then annually thereafter.

We also know that when a dog approaches retirement, it can be an uncertain and stressful time for our clients. That’s why we give priority to our existing clients who seek a successor dog when this time comes.

Support our Specialist Therapy Dog Program

It costs around $35,000 to care for, prepare and train a dog to become a full-fledged Paws for Purple Hearts specialist therapy dog. If you’d like to support our mission to improve the lives of our nation’s Warriors and help us raise these special dogs, please consider making a donation online or visit our Amazon Wish List to purchase supplies for our training centers.


If you’re still unsure if a specialist therapy dog is right for your practice or you need a better understanding of their impact, take a look at what some of our mental health providers have to say:

“A patient was severely depressed and unable to follow through with tasks or staff recommendations. She was at high risk for suicide if discharging from the unit though it was very difficult to have her remain on the unit when she was not participating in treatment. We used time with our Paws for Purple Hearts specialist therapy dog as a reward for participation and the patient began to engage in treatment. This was a turning point in treatment for this Veteran and she graduated successfully from the program.” – VA Psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area

“Our Paws for Purple Hearts specialist therapy dog has the ability to brighten people’s day and improve their mood instantly. His calm presence is very soothing not only to our Veterans, but also to our staff. It is great to have a Paws for Purple Hearts specialist therapy dog around.  He has helped me to be more patient and in the moment.” –VA Social Worker in the San Francisco Bay Area

“Our Veteran patient was hesitant to engage in trauma processing therapy believing she would not be able to tolerate it. She agreed to try therapy only if our resident Paws for Purple Hearts specialist therapy dog could be in the room with her. We agreed.  She began treatment with our Paws for Purple Hearts specialist therapy dog and, about half way through when she was gaining her confidence, we slowly utilized him less in sessions so she could learn other tools/strategies for coping. She successfully completed trauma processing work.” – VA Psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area

“Our Paws for Purple Hearts specialist therapy dog saves lives!” – Veterans Service Organization Social Worker in Northern California

“One patient struggled to form relationships due to fear of intimacy and would isolate frequently. She did not want to engage with our Paws for Purple Hearts specialist therapy dog at the beginning of treatment. During trauma processing the dog would stay in his kennel at first. Over time, the patient would greet the dog upon entering the session and ask to say goodbye to him when leaving. She eventually began wanting him to stay out of his kennel during session. With her permission, I let her know that our Paws for Purple Hearts specialist therapy dog may interact with her such as sitting on her feet or putting his nose to hers if she became tearful (helpful behaviors Paws for Purple Hearts specialist therapy dogs are trained to initiate when they sense distress). She said she would be ok with that. During the session, she became very tearful and cried with her head in her lap. Our Paws for Purple Hearts specialist therapy dog went up to her and gently nudged her face with his nose. She began petting and hugging him, eventually laughing. She reported that the experience was extremely comforting to her and helped her realize the power of connection. Her new canine friend would sit on her feet often throughout sessions after that to help make her comfortable, unprompted by me and very welcomed by the Veteran. The Veteran opened up more in therapy, and began socializing with peers. She even bought herself a hoola hoop!” – VA Psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area

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