Therapy Dogs
 Man's Best Friend Extraordinaire

by Alison O’Callaghan   |Last Updated 06-14-2022

Why Small Breeds Make Great Therapy Dogs

Dogs have long been considered man's best friend with their loyalty and companionship, which is why they often make excellent therapy dogs.

What are They?

A therapy dog is comforting a man in the hospital

Whereas service dogs assist and help (e.g. guide dogs for the blind), a therapy dog’s sole purpose is to soothe people.

They are used to provide affection and comfort for those in hospitals, retirement homes, hospices, and schools, as well providing emotional support to victims in disaster areas.

Studies have shown that they can help the concentration and memory of patients with Alzheimer’s disease and encourage children with autism to be more socially engaged and less aggressive.

They do much to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, providing enjoyment and entertainment, while serving as a distraction for those who are ill and in pain.

Therapy dogs have also greatly benefited children with reading difficulties in schools. Reading aloud to a dog gives a child confidence as they don’t fear being judged or ridiculed for making mistakes.

Smoky - First Therapy Dog

Smoky, the first therapy dog during World War IIPhotograph from Yank magazine & Wikipedia

The first recorded therapy dog was a little Yorkshire Terrier called Smoky, who served in World War Two.

An American soldier discovered Smoky in a deserted foxhole in New Guinea. He sold her for the equivalent of $6.44 to another soldier, Bill Wynne, so that he could continue a poker game.

Bill trained and taught her to do tricks as well as accompanying him on various combat missions.  She first started her role as a therapy dog in 1944 when Bill became ill with dengue fever and hospitalised. His comrades brought Smoky to the hospital, and the nurses took her to see other sick and wounded soldiers, cheering them up.

Smoky continued with her therapy visits for twelve years, during and after the war. She was often seen on stage with Bill, performing tricks, and appeared on TV shows in the U.S.A. She finally retired in 1954.


In 1976, Elaine Smith, a nurse in the U.S.A., started a training program for therapy dogs after seeing the benefits of a chaplain who visited her patients with his Golden Retriever.

A therapy dog can be a pure breed, crossbreed, show champion, rescue case or family pet, and can be large, medium or small. Most vital is that it has a calm and gentle temperament.

A dog must be at least one-year-old, in excellent health, with all vaccinations up-to-date, and free of fleas and ticks.

It needs to have basic obedience, be well-behaved and able to get along with other dogs. It is essential that they love interacting with people, be accepting of strangers, and can wait until a person touches it, without getting over-excited.

The dog must also be able to adapt to and handle different environments and situations, such as hospitals.

The handler will be required to have background checks before they can volunteer, and must know their dog well, working together as a team.

If you are interested in your pet becoming a certified therapy dog, you need to contact your local therapy dog group. They will have your dog evaluated to see if it meets the necessary requirements and organised training for you.

Small Breeds Used as Therapy Dogs

Small dogs make ideal therapy dogs as they are easy to lift onto beds and easier to handle, making them suitable for the sick, elderly and children. They are also not so intimidating for people who may be nervous or afraid of dogs.

The following are various breeds of small dogs suitable for the role:

Yorkshire Terrier

Yorkies are favorite therapy dogs

Yorkshire Terrier –  gentle and easy to train, they make perfect lap dogs.

Although tiny in size, their big personality, and calm nature makes them ideal for children with autism

Read about the Yorkshire Terrier

Toy Poodle

The toy poodle makes an excellent choice for a therapy dog.

Toy Poodle –  intelligent and obedient they can be trained to do tricks and entertain patients in the hospital.

They are hypoallergenic so good for those with allergies.

Great with all people but some can be nervous around small children

Read about the Toy Poodle

Corgi: Cardigan & Pembroke

Corgi is a good choice for a therapy dog.

Corgi – a firm favourite of Queen Elizabeth II, they are even-tempered and affectionate.

Obedient and friendly, they are good companion dogs especially for the elderly

Read about Corgis

King Charles Spaniel

(Also Called
English Toy Spaniel)

King Charles Spaniel

King Charles Spaniel: their kind and warm nature make them excellent for children of all ages, along with adults.

They are very friendly and can help those with emotional problems.

Read about the King Charles Spaniel


A Dachshund would make a good therapy pet

Dachshund – small with little legs, they are good with children of all ages.

Affectionate and playful, they are ideal for those suffering from depression, autism, and anxiety.

Read about the Dachshund


Beagles are often used in therapy work

Beagles – loving nature, they enjoy being around both dogs and other people. Due to their outgoing and fun personalities, they are good with all children. Perfect for those suffering from anxiety, depression, and emotional problems

Read about Beagles


Pugs make good therapy dogs

Pug – sweet nature, they make excellent companion dogs.

They love everyone and are suitable for the elderly, those with depression and children with Attention Deficit problems.

Read about the Pug

At the end of the day, though, it is not the breed but the dog itself that is important. 

If   you  are interested in getting more information about training your dog, the AKC Canine Good Citizen award is a way to begin in the U.S.  

Again, in the US, Pet Partners  is a good place to do more research and register your dog.

If you live in Canada and want additional information, Canada’s Guide To Dogs is a good place to begin your research.

Volunteering your canine friend can be a rewarding experience and will bring much joy and pleasure to many.

Article by Alison O’Callaghan

I adore all animals, especially dogs and horses, and love writing about them. I have owned Miniature Schnauzers in the past and currently have a Toy Poodle called Lucy, who I adopted. I work professionally with horses and bring Lucy to the stables every day.

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About Janice (author and voice behind this site)

Having lived with dogs and cats most of her life, Janice served as a veterinary technician for ten years in Maryland and twelve years as a Shih Tzu dog breeder in Ohio.

Her education includes undergraduate degrees in Psychology with a minor in biology, Early Childhood Education, and Nursing, and a master's in Mental Health Counseling.

She is a lifelong learner, a dog lover, and passionate about the welfare of animals. Her favorite breed for over 50 years has been the Shih Tzu, but she has also lived with Poodles, Maltese, Yorkshire Terriers, Beagles, English Bulldogs, Carin Terriers, and a Cocker Spaniel.

When not writing, reading, and researching dog-related topics, she likes to spend time with her eight Shih Tzu dogs, husband, and family, as well as knitting and crocheting. She is also the voice behind Miracle Shih Tzu and Smart-Knit-Crocheting

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