It can be difficult to navigate HIPAA and privacy laws with your therapy dog volunteer work. Many facilities do not offer a detailed training, or do not offer therapy dog specific HIPAA training. My hope is that this hand-out, HIPAA and the Therapy Dog, from High Country Caring Canines will help you navigate the waters of privacy laws.


HIPAA is the acronym for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that was passed by Congress in 1996. It sets minimum standards that facilities must follow to protect patients’ health information.

The key term associated with the privacy rules is Protected Health Information (PHI) This includes:

  • information used within the facility

  • verbal or written information

  • information stored in computer files

  • information stored in paper patient files

  • information shared with other health care providers, payers, or third parties

What information needs to be kept private?

  • ALL information that identifies an individual.

  • This includes but is not limited to name, address, date of birth, phone/fax numbers, social security number, medical record number, and photographs. This even includes any other unique number, code, or characteristic of the individual.

  • It also includes nursing and physician notes, as well as billing and other treatment records used during a patient’s visit in the facility.

HIPAA guarantees several rights to patients, some of which include:

  • right to privacy

  • right to confidential use of their health information for their treatment

  • right to have their name witheld from patient directories,

  • right to request that information not be given out concerning their care

  • right to request that individuals are not told of their presence in a facility

Every person who provides care, assistance, or volunteer services to patients in a facility should understand and comply with HIPAA regulations. Organizations or individuals that violate the privacy rules are subject to monetary fines and/or civil or criminal charges. Failure to comply may also hurt the reputation of the facility and associated organizations.

YOUR Responsibility -HIPAA and the Therapy Dog

You must respect confidential information about patients. HIPAA requires that users of PHI access the minimum amount of information necessary to perform their duties. As a therapy dog team volunteer, what is the minimum information you may need? A name! We suggest introducing yourself and your dog, then allowing the person you are visiting the opportunity to introduce themselves.

When interacting with patients or residents of a facility, do not ask direct questions about their state of health or about treatments they may be undergoing. Not only is this private information, many patients and residents may not want to discuss the reason they are in the facility. Your goal as a therapy dog volunteer is to bring a welcome break form the potentially stressful situation the individual may be in through interaction with your dog. This may mean keeping the discussion focused on topics that are not related to the health of the person you are visiting. It’s always a good idea to discuss your dog. Be sure to follow the lead of the person you are visiting as you speak with them.

It is essential that you are mindful of your actions while on a therapy visit. Be careful that you do not inadvertently overhear or read private information regarding a patient.

After a visit, do not give out any identifying information about the people you visit, including all PHI listed above. When discussing your visit, be careful to leave out all information that may possibly identify the individuals you interacted with.

Some individuals do not wish for others to know that they are a patient or a resident at a facility. Keep this in mind at all times.

Social Media

Do not share on social media any patient information acquired through your volunteer work.

Posting patient information without authorization is a violation of the patient’s right to privacy and confidentiality. Even if you think you’ve de‐identified the information, it still might be identifiable to others

The Internet is a public space. In most cases, everything you post online will be seen by a public audience. Consider those viewing your content, leadership, patients, prospective patients, privacy and the media. Assume everyone is reading your post, no matter how obscure or secure the site to which you are posting may seem.


If you wish to document your visits, we suggest speaking with the activities director or volunteer supervisor to learn about the facility’s policies regarding photography. The Alliance of Therapy Dogs requires a signed photo release for all photographs/videos/etc that will be associated with their name in any way. Many facilities will also have their OWN photo authorization form. If this is something you may be interested in, we suggest keeping a few copies in your notebook with your other therapy dog paperwork.

The Alliance of Therapy Dogs has made their photo release available online at

One way to document your visits WITHOUT worrying about violating any private information is to take photos of yourself and your dog in front of facility signs, landscaping, etc. Be sure there are no people in the background of your photos.

Alliance of Therapy Dogs

The Alliance of therapy dogs does include policies regarding privacy and photography in their Rules and Regulations. They read as follow:

Privacy: Observe all rules of privacy and confidentiality as required by HIPAA. Never discuss a patient’s health or personal issues with the patient or anyone else.

Photos: Photos may not be taken without prior written permission of the subject (or guardian) and a representative of the facility. Members must use a Therapy Dogs Inc. Photo Authorization form for any submission to Therapy Dogs Inc.-owned publications or social media.

HIPAA and the Therapy Dog// Copyright High Country Caring Canines 2015