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December 15, 2021

AAHA releases guidelines for working, assistance, therapy dogs

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The American Animal Hospital Association has released the 2021 AAHA Working, Assistance, and Therapy Dog Guidelines, described in the abstract as the first comprehensive consensus report on veterinary recommendations for working, assistance, and therapy dogs.

“Working and service dogs play an important role in our society,” said Dr. Cynthia M. Otto, chair of the task force that developed the guidelines and director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “These dogs have special tasks that increase safety of people and our environment and independence of individuals with service dogs.”

SAR dog, Sniper
Sniper, a search and rescue dog, works on rubble. (Photo by Shelby Wise)

Dr. Otto said veterinarians are not always aware of the unique talents or requirements of these dogs and their handlers or owners. She said, “Working dogs have occupational hazards that we need to recognize in order to provide the best preventive care, client education, and readiness for treatment.”

Communication with the handler or owner represents a unique and important dynamic, Dr. Otto continued. She said, “Providing guidelines for the care of working and assistance dogs will increase the satisfaction of both the veterinary team and the dog team, while providing the most directed care of these invaluable dogs.”

According to the abstract, “The guidelines discuss recommendations for dogs trained for protection, odor/scent detection, service functions for people with diagnosed disabilities or physical limitations, emotional support, and therapeutic intervention.” For each category, the guidelines provide a definition, examples, relevant information for practitioners, a description of the dogs’ work, and considerations for medical care. One section of the guidelines covers education and training of the practice team. An extensive table summarizes recommendations for health care.

Dr. Otto emphasized the use of low-stress handling for these dogs and the incorporation of the handler or owner into treatment.

She added that the guidelines are only the beginning of providing optimal care. She said, “Veterinarians involved with these dogs can pursue additional resources and training to ensure that they are providing the best possible care.”