Therapy dogs can bring light into otherwise dark lives. Therapy dogs aren’t necessarily as highly trained as service dogs for visually impaired people, for example, but therapy dogs must have specific characteristics. Therapy dogs need to be “well-mannered, well-behaved, and enjoy meeting people,” according to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a nonprofit organization that certifies therapy dogs. Human therapists need to be nonjudgmental and to hold their patients in unconditional positive regard. That sounds pretty much like a definition of a good family or companion dog to me.

Therapy dogs and their owners are most often volunteers that work as a team. Therapy dogs work in a variety of settings: nursing homes, senior care centers, cancer treatment centers, and hospital children’s wards. Unfortunately, COVID-19 disrupted many aspects of healthcare, including opportunities for therapy dog visits.

Medical professionals Michele Davey, RN, and Bonnie Offit, MD, founded Murphy Cares, a digital therapy dog app. Because of COVID-19, visits to healthcare facilities are highly restricted due to risk of infection. Davey and Offit came up with Murphy Cares to let hospitalized patients — especially children — to connect with real dogs. Murphy Cares can’t replace live dog visits, but the developers believe virtual visits are the next best thing.

Users start Murphy Cares by indicating how they’re currently feeling. Next they choose from a group of real dogs of different breeds. There is a library of images and videos for each dog. When a user chooses from a selection activities such as going for a walk, throwing a ball, or giving a treat, a short video shows their selected dog engaged in the activity. So the dog will walk on a leash, catch a ball, or enjoy a treat in a video clip.

According to Murphy Cares, 7.1% of children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with anxiety; approximately 16 million American adults suffer from depression each year. The software, currently in beta version for iOS devices only, gives patients a chance to interact with a real dog, albeit virtually. Murphy Cares “brings out the kid in everyone,” according to the app website.

Murphy Cares isn’t a remote monitoring app and doesn’t record and report biometrics, but it is an example of yet another positive way digital healthcare can make a difference.