If you have a pet, you know that animals make wonderful friends. They're
joyful companions when times are good; and have soft, furry shoulders to lean
on when times are bad. Pets calm us and cheer us, motivate and enliven us.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a pet, however. Seniors who live in
care homes and people in hospital rarely get to see animals. That's a shame,
especially since it's been proven that animals can actually help improve your
This is how pet therapy got invented. People who had pets decided if they
"shared" their animals, it would help other people. It worked out so well,
that now it's called "pet therapy" or "animal-assisted therapy." Even doctors
approve of it!
Pet therapy is a relatively new treatment option for stroke victims, the
elderly, the mentally challenged and the terminally ill. The people who share
their pets are called "pet therapy facilitators," since they facilitate pet
There are many organizations that are involved in pet therapy. They recruit
volunteers with pets (usually dogs), conduct training, and organize therapy
Therapy pets can be of benefit in many situations and settings, according
to the organization Pets and People: Companions in Therapy and Service. The
pets provide a warm, loving atmosphere in nursing homes and hospitals and
work as an aide in psychotherapy.
Likewise, they serve as an incentive and a partner for physical therapy.
They can also be helpful during crisis interventions. Finally, they provide
an educational experience for children at day-care centers, schools and special
It takes a special person to get involved. "Take a look at yourself," says
Mary Merchant, a volunteer with St. John Ambulance, which runs a dog therapy
"Are you prepared for the hospital or nursing home setting? Realize that
you'll be sharing your pet but you'll be there, too. If you're uncomfortable
in those situations then you need to re-evaluate what you're doing. This isn't
just another fun thing to do with your dog. It isn't like playing Frisbee."
Volunteers must be able to share their pet regularly. Most agencies ask
you to commit to at least one visit a month (of two to three hours each) but
you can always do more. Some organizations require a minimum three-month commitment.
Generally, there is no age limit but the volunteer must be in full control
of the animal. As such, children under 12 are recommended to volunteer with
As for the pet, eligibility rules vary. For example, Pet Partners requires
that the animals be well behaved and more than one year old. Animals including
dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, turtles, hamsters, guinea pigs, and others can
get involved. The only pets excluded are ferrets and lizards or exotic animals.
Before a dog can be accepted into a pet therapy program, it has to pass
an exam even more rigorous than the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizenship
Test. The dog must know all the basic commands, plus, it must have a calm,
Organizations usually provide a veterinarian to conduct these pet exams
at no charge. They will evaluate your pet to see if it is suitable for therapy
work. They perform a number of checks to determine both temperament and physical
To be a volunteer, your pet must have current vaccinations and be free
of parasites. A medical exam is required once a year.
Before you and your pet start visiting people in hospitals and day-care
centers, you'll both need some training.
For example, animals will be trained to be comfortable with items like
wheelchairs, crutches and any other equipment patients and therapists may
use. This isn't easy for all animals: only one-third of the dogs who apply
pass the test on the first try.
Some organizations charge fees for their training courses. For example,
Pet Partners charges $75 for an animal handlers skills course, and $15 for
testing and certification. There may be other fees like harnesses and identification
items like bandannas and patches. Typically, these are one-time costs.
During training, you and your pet will learn how to conduct yourselves
during therapy visits. For instance, you will learn:
-not all people like dogs and some may be afraid. If that's the
case, politely back off
-when you approach someone who is paralyzed on one side, bring
the dog to the unaffected side
-always be respectful and an attentive, non-judgmental listener
-dogs should not be allowed in dining or food preparation areas.
It's helpful to find out what times meals are served and avoid visiting at
If you enjoy this activity, you might consider a career combining animals
and therapy. While few people make a living solely as animal-assisted therapists,
that may change in the future.
Pat Gonser, PhD, who founded Pets and People, says it may soon be more
than a hobby. Gonser is a professor of nursing and has written the curriculum
for a college course for animal-assisted therapy facilitators.
"You'll need a college degree in nursing, psychology or sociology if you
have any hopes to make this a professional choice," Gonser says.
"Get as much hands-on experience as you can," says Daniela Ortner, executive
director of International Wildlife Education and Conservation in California.
"The real knowledge comes from practical experiences, not so much from
theoretical classes. Do any volunteer position you can get your hands on.
Challenge yourself and be persistent with others. Travel as much as you can."
Therapy Dogs Inc.P.O. Box 5868Cheyenne
Canine Therapy CorpsSuite 311 - 1700 W. Irving Park RdChicago
Furry Friends -- Pet Assisted TherapyA nonprofit organization that "licks loneliness" by taking our
pets to "shut-ins" at hospitals, convalescent homes and children's facilities
The Latham FoundationA nonprofit organization promoting respect for all life through
Therapy Visit StoriesTales of therapy from owners of dogs who belong to the Bouvier
des Flandres breed