What Do Clinical Therapy Dogs Do?

The Wisconsin Academy for Graduate Service Dogs (WAGS) began in 1987, and we are maybe most known for our work with providing highly-skilled service dogs for those with physical disabilities. However, did you know WAGS also trains highly-skilled clinical therapy dogs?

What is the difference between a WAGS service dog and a clinical therapy dog?

A WAGS service dog provides direct support for one person with a mobility impairment. WAGS clinical therapy dogs possess advanced obedience and social skills, and they are utilized by clinicians in healthcare, mental health and educational settings.

Clinical therapy dogs bring the benefits of canine companionship, and research has shown that petting and interacting with a dog lowers blood pressure and promotes relaxation – a benefit that is much needed in stressful situations.

A great example of a WAGS clinical therapy dog in action is WAGS program graduate, Breeze.

Jill & her clinical therapy dog, BreezeWorking with a Clinical Therapy Dog: Interview with Jill Speer

Jill Speer is a registered nurse for Madison Public Schools, working in a health office shared between an elementary and middle school, and has worked for the district since 2019. Jill has also been a volunteer trainer for WAGS since 2012. She has helped train several dogs before officially being placed with Breeze to provide support within the student services team in the schools.

We talked to Jill about her experience with WAGS and what it’s like to work with a clinical therapy dog.

Why is a clinical therapy dog a good fit for your role?

Breeze works with me as part of our student services team in the Madison Schools. She does some amazing things that humans just can’t do. Dogs can connect with people, including students in a special way. This year Breeze helped in our health services team by attending all of the vaccine clinics where students got vaccines. She sat with hundreds of students and provided comfort while they got their shots. On a daily basis at school, Breeze helps provide support by checking in with specific students, helping regulate emotions, and supporting in times of grief for students and staff. She can help students to better understand their own feelings and regulate their emotions. Plus she brings joy by just passing by and saying hi to lots of folks throughout the day!

What is the Breeze’s primary purpose at work?

Breeze is stationed at school with me set days a week. She provides check in/out with specific students and also has regularly scheduled check ins with some students each week. Breeze is able to sit and cuddle with students while they practice reading aloud. With her calm energy, she also provides an opportunity for students to overcome fears who may have had predominantly negative interactions with dogs. She meets informally with dozens of kids per day. She has also provided grief support in acute moments for lots of students. As part of our district crisis response support, Breeze also travels around the district to provide support at schools where they may have requested a dog’s presence for the day.

How do the kids respond to Breeze?

Kids absolutely love Breeze. She truly brings joy to many throughout the day. It’s not unusual for kids to lovingly joke that they are going to take her home with them because they love her so much.

What does a typical day look like for Breeze?

Breeze is very excited to leave home with me on school mornings. She definitely knows what days she’s working and cannot wait to get to school. Breeze hangs in my office or with another trained staff person and either interacts with scheduled students or students who drop in. Sometimes she even enjoys a little break at recess time and gets to play with students outside. On Fridays, she travels around the district to meet students across the district.

What has the experience been like for you with Breeze thus far?

All of the WAGS dogs are special in their own way and I feel like I connected with all of the dogs I helped train in some way or another, but having a dog placed with me is a privilege beyond what I hoped when training. Breeze adds another element to my practice as a nurse and betters our schools.

Breeze brings so much positivity wherever she goes. I think this is really her strength. One of the coolest things about Breeze is that for as much joy she provides other people, I really think she feels being herself around other people, too. She’s a great fit to work in the schools because of how reciprocal the joy is between the kids and Breeze.

What has your experience been like with WAGS?

Volunteering with WAGS has really shaped me in so many ways. I always knew I loved dogs, but did not anticipate how training would really deepen my understanding of behavior and how our interactions influence each other. It’s such a privilege to connect and work with an animal in this way.

What advice would you give to anyone interested in working with a clinical therapy dog?

Take your time to practice training with a dog to form a solid foundation. When you have that solid foundation, your dog will really trust you and work that much more effectively with other people.

WAGS Clinical Therapy Dogs in the Madison Community

In 2021, WAGS began a working partnership with the Madison Metropolitan School District to provide clinical therapy dogs for the District’s new Critical Response Team as well as canine team members in the schools.

The Critical Response Team provides trauma-informed mental health support to students and staff in the aftermath of critical incidents where intervention is needed immediately. The presence of dogs after a potentially traumatic incident can be especially impactful, helping those affected deal with grief, sadness or shock.

WAGS is excited about the presence of clinical therapy dogs in our community, and welcomes the opportunity to train and place them. We hope to continue the partnership with MMSD and look forward to additional partnerships in the future.

If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer trainer, please contact WAGS Program and Training Director, Sarah Sirioss at ssirios@wags.net or visit our Become a Volunteer page to fill out an application today.