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The Joy and Benefits of Being a Pet Therapy Volunteer

A guide to getting you and your dog trained and certified

By Mary Dell Harrington

We love our pets so much that some of us consider them our BFFs. But beyond sharing a little snuggling, feeding and playing, you and your dog can perform a great service for people in need of some friendly companionship.

Dogs love having a purpose — as do humans — and there’s probably no better way to bond with your pet and do good than to become pet therapy volunteers. Opportunities range from visiting hospital patients to chatting with nursing home residents to reading with children — with your dear dog at your side.

Just a few months of training will teach you the requisite skills and protocol to work in an institutional setting. All you need is a friendly dog in good health that understands the basics of obedience.

Becoming certified is a win-win-win situation: It brings happiness to the people being visited and gives you and your dog the deep gratification that comes with lending a hand — and a paw — to people who need it most.

Four-Legged Volunteer Brighten Patients’ Day

Walk into almost any hospital across the country and you’re likely to spot a team of volunteers, one on either end of a leash. Pet Partners, one of the largest national nonprofit organizations of its kind, has 11,000 registered human-canine teams in its program alone. The group estimate that its volunteers pay more than 1 million visits every year.

At New York-Presbyterian Hospital (NYPH), where my dog, Moose, and I volunteer, animal therapy is recognized as a bona fide balm and has been incorporated into treatment services through a program called Paws for Patients. The hospital website describes how Animal Assisted Therapy helps its patients: “Dogs can give someone a reason to take a walk, improve balance, retrieve objects, sit for a good brushing or just provide companionship, non-judgmental support and a fun-loving attitude.”

“I can’t always explain it myself,” says Dr. Edward Creagan, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., “but for years I’ve been seeing how having a pet around is like an effective drug — but without any side effects. It really does help people.”

The Good Dog Foundation, one of the largest therapy groups on the East Coast, reports patients suffering from a range of physical and psychological ailments show “reduced anxiety, loneliness, stress and blood pressure” when their volunteer teams visit facilities they serve in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.

Does Your Dog Have What It Takes to Be a Volunteer?

You no doubt think your dog is endlessly loveable, but how do you know that others will feel the same the way? As supervisor of the Westchester County, N.Y., division of Paws for Patients, George Berger evaluates candidates to determine whether they are suitable. “The single most important thing is temperament,” says Berger, a retired Time, Inc., executive. “Basically, you need a friendly animal who likes to interact with strangers. Some dogs are too excitable or too forward.”

It’s not just the dog that’s being evaluated, he adds. “Know-it-all owners who breeze in without wanting to follow protocol think the burden of therapy is entirely on the dog. But the dog actually just opens the door to human conversation.”

Of his six years involved with animal therapy, Berger says, “I have done nothing in my life more gratifying, including having a pretty glamorous career in publishing.”

(MORE: The 10 Best Pet Companions to Have at Your Side )

How to Become a Pet Companion Volunteer

The first step in becoming an animal therapy team is locating an organization that can train and certify you (see Resources at the end of this article). The American Kennel Club website lists five such national and 100 registration/certification groups. Pet Partners, which is on the national list, has teams in all 50 states, Canada and a handful of other countries. Its licensed instructors guide volunteers through a four-step process, including a workshop, a training course, a skills test and then certification/registration.

Training is typically offered over the course of eight to 12 weeks. Students do obedience work in groups, in settings that often reflect actual visitation sites, so they can practice controlling their dogs. Even if your dog has had similar training, don’t expect to master the lessons in one day or even a week — the Pet Partners student manual is more than 300 pages long! Those wanting to learn more about the science behind the animal-human connection will find it in the manual’s bibliography and on Pet Partners' website.

You Don’t Need a Dog to Volunteer

If you’d like to work with dogs but don’t have one of your own, contact your local animal shelter or a group like the Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB), headquartered in Yorktown, N.Y. GEB relies on a network of 1,400 volunteers in 12 states to support people with vision impairment (as well as for a new program called "heeling autism," which places trained dogs in families with autistic children).

At the heart of this dedicated group are 420 people who have opened their home to the puppies that may one day serve as guide dogs. For up to 16 months, volunteers foster pups, providing a home, socialization and training, all to ready them for the more intense guide training done on-site in Yorktown. GEB gives the training gratis and also pays for equipment and vet expenses.

Michelle Brier, GEB's director of marketing and communication, says that helping to raise or train a guide dog can be a good short-term alternative to full-time pet ownership, and notes that it can “change someone’s life forever.” It’s the perfect volunteer commitment for someone nearing retirement age who has mixed feelings about taking on the long-term responsibilities of permanent pet ownership.

My Own Experience As a Pet Volunteer

I was somewhat doubtful that Moose, my chocolate Labrador, and I would pass our initial screening four years ago. A wiggly, jumpy 60-pound puppy, he was so thrilled to be in an auditorium full of other dogs that it took all my strength — and a bag of treats — to keep him calm and focused on “sit” and “stay.” Fortunately our instructor, Stacey, saw enough positive qualities in Moose (friendliness, attentiveness) that she accepted us for training.

Within a few days, we were back in that same room with three other pairs of candidates practicing basic obedience commands. Over the next 12 weeks, Stacey brought in a range of hospital paraphernalia (IV poles, tray carts, wheelchairs) and different types of people to see how we controlled our animals and how they reacted. While Moose initially tugged at the leash to explore these unfamiliar sights and scents, over time I learned to anticipate his reactions, and he learned to respond to my lead.


We took our final exam at the hospital, where we performed a simulation of an actual visit. I was quite proud of my pup when I learned we had passed! I then mailed off Moose’s veterinary records along with our skills test result — the last step toward certification. Within 30 days, Moose received his official green vest, and I got the phone call with our weekly assignment at a unit at NYPH in White Plains, N.Y., where patients are treated for a range of psychiatric illnesses.

Our three and a half years of volunteering have gone fast. Moose and I now visit two groups of adults each week in the residential treatment facilities. We conduct the hour-long sessions in community rooms where the patients and I have relaxed conversations about sports, Moose or the weather. As we talk, I walk around the room and offer each participant a chance to pet or brush him, give him treats or maybe a hug.

Volunteering with Moose has become an important part of my week, and I get deep satisfaction from seeing how much joy he brings to patients who are sometimes despondent or seem lonely. Whenever we walk into the hospital, we hear “Hi Moose!” from staff members who have gotten to know him, and shy requests of “May I pet him?” from those who have not. And as good as this makes me feel, when I watch my partner on the job, I know that it makes him even happier.

Mary Dell Harrington, a certified Pet Partners therapy animal volunteer, is also co-founder, along with Lisa Endlich Heffernan, of Grown and Flown: Parenting from the Empty Nest.

Resources for Becoming a Pet Therapy Volunteer

AKC lists five national therapy dog organizations on their website. If you already have a connection with a nonprofit organization, you could check with its volunteer coordinator to see if the organization work swith any animal therapy organizations in your community.

The Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc.
80 Powder Mill Road
Morris Plains, N.J. 07950

Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society)
875 124th Ave. NE #101
Bellevue, Wash. 98005

Love on a Leash
P.O. Box 4115
Oceanside, Calif. 92052

Therapy Dogs Incorporated
P.O. Box 20227
Cheyenne WY 82003

Therapy Dogs International
88 Bartley Road
Flanders, N.J. 07836

Three of the largest guide dog schools also offer volunteer opportunities:

Guiding Eyes for the Blind
611 Granite Springs Road
Yorktown Heights, N.Y. 10598

The Seeing Eye, Inc.
10 Washington Valley Road
Morristown, N.J. 07960

Guide Dogs for the Blind
P.O. Box 151200
San Rafael, Calif. 94915-1200

Mary Dell Harrington Read More
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