Do you think your dog will make a great candidate for a Therapy Dog? Do you have a little extra time to volunteer in your community with your dog?
What is a Therapy Dog?
The term “Therapy Dog” refers to a volunteer dog and handler team that have met the evaluation requirements to officially visit nursing homes, hospitals, schools, disaster areas and other areas where comfort and support can be provided.
Conversely, a service dog is a dog trained specifically to provide assistance to individual with either a physical or mental disability, and an emotional support dog is one that provides daily emotional support to its owner.
As a pet owner, volunteering with your dog is a very rewarding experience. There are over 55,000 volunteer dogs and handler teams registered as Pet Therapy teams but the need continues to grow.
Things Pet Therapy Teams Do
Pet Therapy Teams participate in a variety of volunteer activities, often associated with a local volunteer group. Some of these activities include:
- Regular visits to nursing homes and assisted living facilities
- Hospital visits to pediatric wards, infusion centers and cancer centers
- School visits for education programs
- Reading programs at schools and libraries such as Paws To Read and R.E.A.D
- Assistance at Disaster Relief/Crisis Relief centers
- Campus visits to universities to help students adjust to living away from home
- Family Court support for children
The Benefits of Pet Therapy
The health benefits of interacting with dogs are well known and have been scientifically supported, such as lowering blood pressure, releasing endorphins that have a calming effect and the automatic relaxation response that occurs when petting a dog.
Additionally, interacting with Therapy Dogs has been shown to improve mental health by:
- lifting spirits and lessening depression
- decreasing feelings of isolation and alienation
- encouraging communication
- increasing socialization and sense of community
- reducing loneliness
The University of California Davis conducted a groundbreaking study in 2010 on the benefits of using a Therapy Dog to help children become better readers. This study was based on anecdotal evidence from teachers and parents that showed reading to the Therapy Dogs improved their child’s reading ability. The study showed that struggling readers were able to significantly improve their fluency levels from reading aloud to the dogs. They reported that reading was fun and were willing to do the necessary fluency practice needed to improve reading in a non-judgmental environment. This environment existed when they were able to read aloud to the Therapy Dogs.
Many Pet Therapy teams make regular visits to assisted living and nursing home patients. Often for these seniors, regular visitors from Pet Therapy teams are the only visitors that they have, as family is often living far away or in a different state. Patients with dementia are often able to make a connection to the do that they aren’t able to make to another person.
For you as a volunteer, Pet Therapy work provides an immediate connection to other like-minded dog owners and an extremely rewarding volunteer experience. Many volunteers are longtime volunteers with hundreds of hours earned over the years.
How to Become a Registered Pet Therapy Team
There are three primary registration organizations for Pet Therapy Teams in the United States. They are The Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Therapy Dogs International and Pet Partners.
Steps to Becoming a Therapy Dog:
- Find a registering organization near you
- Brush up on your training or take a class
- Get your dog evaluated by a registered evaluator
- Find a volunteer group, get connected and start volunteering!
Your dog doesn’t have to be perfect or undergo the rigorous training that a service dog would.
The DO have to be:
- Well mannered
- Able to work and interact where other dogs are present
And the can NOT:
- Be Shy
- Jump up on people
- Pull or lunge on leash
- React to other dogs, wheelchairs etc.
All three organizations have an evaluation, testing and registration process that is fairly similar. It is loosely based on the AKC Canine Good Citizen criteria with additional testing criteria added in. Once you connect with one of the registering bodies you will most likely be able to find a training class in your area that will help you prepare for your test. Most training classes are 6-8 weeks long.
Once your are registered you will find that there is usually a group of volunteers that is organized to set up volunteer visits to the schools, nursing homes, hospitals etc. These groups often offer ongoing training for you and your dog to keep your skills sharp. Typically they will offer a way to track your volunteer hours and community service.
As a Pet Therapy volunteer team myself, I can tell you it is a tremendous way to give back to your community. It provides you with an extremely meaningful volunteer activity and connection to an amazing group of like-minded humans and dogs.
Are you and your dog ready to make a difference in your community today?
This article was previously published by Kathryn Durno on 4Knines blog.