2021 AAHA Working, Assistance, and Therapy Dog Guidelines

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The guidelines are the first comprehensive consensus report on veterinary healthcare recommendations for working, assistance, and therapy dogs. This category of canine patients includes a broad assortment of animals, some with well-defined functions and others that provide a more generalized support role. 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. Although the term is often used to describe dogs providing animal-assisted activities, true therapy dogs provide goal-directed therapy, often under the supervision of a healthcare professional such as an occupational therapist or psychologist. Many working dogs undergo extensive training and have rigorous physical demands placed upon them. These factors make working, assistance, and therapy dogs inherently valuable and impose a need for a high level of primary veterinary care as described in the guidelines. Because working dogs have a particularly close relationship with their handlers, a trust relationship between the practice team and the working-dog client is imperative. (J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 2021; 57:253–277. DOI 10.5326/JAAHA-MS-7250)


Working, assistance, and therapy dogs (collectively referred to as working dogs in these guidelines) have high intrinsic value because they perform various practical, utilitarian, or commercial functions. As such, these animals are generally expensive to purchase and train. In addition, the physical and behavioral demands placed on working dogs often require a particularly high standard of healthcare and close monitoring by the attending veterinarian.

These guidelines are intended to enable veterinary practitioners to anticipate the needs of these specialized patients and their handlers, to provide the care needed to maintain their health and serviceability, and to offer useful referral recommendations when appropriate.

The terminology related to working dogs and how they are classified sometimes overlaps and can be confusing. The practice team needs to “speak the language” of the working dog community to better understand and relate to these specialized patients, their handlers, and sponsoring organizations. Thus, the guidelines begin with a section on acronyms and definitions related to working dogs and their societal roles. Although the advisory panel has attempted to clarify the definitions associated with working, assistance, and therapy dogs, some confusion and inconsistency is unavoidable owing to the lack of universally recognized nomenclature associated with this animal population.

These guidelines were prepared by a task force of experts convened by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and were subjected to a formal peer-review process. This document is intended as a guideline only, not an AAHA standard of care. These guidelines and recommendations should not be construed as dictating an exclusive protocol, course of treatment, or procedure. Variations in practice may be warranted based on the needs of the individual patient, resources, and limitations unique to each individual practice setting. Evidence-based support for specific recommendations has been cited whenever possible and appropriate.

Other recommendations are based on practical clinical experience and a consensus of expert opinion. Further research is needed to document some of these recommendations. Because each case is different, veterinarians must base their decisions on the best available scientific evidence in conjunction with their own knowledge and experience.

These guidelines are supported by generous educational grants from the AAHA Foundation,
Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA Inc., CareCredit, Merck Animal Health, and Zoetis.