Above: Clinical Psychologist Pam Dorsett and Naomi, who helps calm patients and will be trained as a therapy dog, not to be confused with a service animal. Photo by TGA Communications, LLC.

Dr. Pamela Dorsett, an Atlanta psychologist, likes to bring her 5-pound, 7-ounce dog Naomi to work. Dorsett plans for Naomi to become trained as a therapy dog.

With the exception of a handful of folks who either have allergies or don’t care for dogs, her clients really enjoy Naomi, Dorsett said. The dog greets them, frequently sits with her patients and sometimes licks their hands, if the client doesn’t object, of course.

“Naomi has big brown eyes; she’s affectionate and incredibly friendly,” Dorsett said.

She views Naomi as an asset to her practice.

“I think she helps people feel calmer. When I’m meeting new clients, Naomi helps put them at ease. It’s not an easy task to talk to a complete stranger about deeply personal issues,” Dorsett said. “Greetings by a tiny dog with big brown eyes can be a welcome sight when entering a situation that can be initially uncomfortable.”

Service animals and emotional support pets

Many people ask: what distinguishes a service pet from a comfort pet or an emotional support animal, such as a cat, dog, rabbit, etc.? Readily available information is listed on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) website.

A service animal is “… any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.”

Therapy dog “Andrew” during his early training. Photo courtesy of owner Mark Perloe, MD.

Some service animals can, among other things, pull a wheelchair, retrieve a dropped item, alert a person to a sound, remind a person about medications or press an elevator button on command. In fact, some dogs have even been trained to detect oncoming epileptic seizures or sense the presence of certain human cancers.

The “… individual’s disability and the tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability,” states the ADA.

Emotional support pets, which include comfort animals and therapy dogs, are not service animals (under Title II and Title III of the ADA). Support animals might help with companionship, loneliness and comfort, as well as depression, anxiety and certain phobias. However, they’re not trained for performing assistance acts. They bring comfort to their owners, not always others.

Making others happy is the role of the therapy dog. Physician Mark Perloe says his dog Andrew is “trained to be comfortable in certain settings, such as nursing homes and children’s hospitals.” He and Andrew enjoy visiting both.

Therapy dogs provide comfort to others at the handler’s direction and they must wear some type of special gear when in service. Of course, they have devoted owners.

Another choice for comfort

What if caring for a pet is no longer an option? Of course, there’s nothing like a real pet, but if older adults struggle with dementia or anxiety — or have difficulty remembering to tend to a pet’s needs — maybe a Lucy the Lapdog can help.

Lucy, a plush, weighted blanket shaped like a dog with satin ears and embroidered paws, provides “comfort without confusion,” according to her originators. Two sisters from Cumming, Ga. created her. Initially, Lucy’s role was help children with special needs.

Christy Bennett — an occupational therapist for 20 years — was looking to support children who needed help with sensory processing (a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses).

Photo courtesy of Lucy the Lapdog website.

“Once we had our prototype,” Bennett said, “I wanted to show her to my husband’s grandmother who was visiting. And immediately, the family noticed how calm and content grandma became while holding Lucy.

“That’s when I realized we had something special,” Bennett said. “Lucy could be a [calming] sensory tool for many people, not just children.”

According to Bennett, one visit to a memory care center answered that question. “When residents held Lucy, they would begin to talk about dogs that were special to them from their past,” Bennett said.

Those with dementia (Alzheimer’s or other conditions associated with memory loss) often experience anxiety due to confusion over a number of things. The calming sensory input that Lucy the Lapdog provides “evokes a flood of positive emotions associated with caring for a pet,” Bennett explained.

Although she doesn’t bark or purr, Lucy can be a win-win for dementia, hospice and palliative care patients who find holding a pet comforting but can no longer care for one.

Therapy Animal Information

Some states have laws defining therapy animals. However, they’re not covered by the ADA rules.

  • Georgia law states that disabled individuals “are entitled to full and equal accommodations” on all public conveyances and forms of transport and public places, “subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law and applicable alike to all persons,” according to Atlanta Pet Life’s website. Also, disabled persons cannot be charged more because they have a guide or service dog.
  • Georgia establishments may ask a disabled person what task their service animal is trained to do for them, but not what disability the person has or to provide proof of the animal’s training or a doctor’s note about their disability.
  • Therapy and emotional support dogs do not have the same level of access as service dogs to places where pets are not permitted in Georgia.

For more details and expanded info, visit AnimalLawSource.org.

Judi Kanne

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.