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Pet Therapy: Volunteer with Your Pet

by Michael Organ
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Pet therapy programs give animals and their owners the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. Imagine the joy of an isolated, elderly person when she receives a weekly visit from a cheerful dog and the animal’s caring owner. Or picture a shy first-grader coming out of his shell when he has the opportunity to read to a receptive, non-judgmental dog. For those of us who have a special bond with our pets, these situations can be just as rewarding for us as for the person undergoing pet therapy!

The social benefits of pet therapy are undeniable. Patients in nursing homes and long-term care facilities often crave simple companionship and just need to see a friendly face. What is friendlier than a tail-wagging, hand-licking dog? Many patients were once themselves pet owners, and the experience with your pet can make them remember how good it feels to bond with an animal.

But the therapeutic value doesn’t end with social benefits. Researchers are increasingly finding that pet therapy can help with medical and psychological conditions. The American Heart Association published a study suggesting that pet therapy programs (in particular, therapy involving dogs) reduced stress levels in heart patients. Just a 12-minute visit with a dog improved heart and lung function in men and women hospitalized with heart failure. Likewise, pet therapy animals have proven valuable in helping children with ADHD to focus and to relate to others.

Most pet therapy programs identify two primary forms of volunteer assistance. Animal-assisted activities allow owner and pet to interact casually with a patient. Volunteers receive little or no training in therapeutic technique. Their role is to simply make life a little more pleasant for the person they visit. In animal-assisted therapy, there are goals for the visit. Interactions are measured and data are recorded to further assist patients in their recovery. For instance, it might be part of a patient’s physical therapy to pick up a brush and stroke the dog five times. This second type of volunteer assistance usually involves input from healthcare professionals. Dog-Play offers practical advice and articles for would-be volunteers looking to place their pets in pet therapy programs.

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First, prepare yourself and your pet for volunteering by getting certified:

Alternatively, there are many local pet therapy organizations that may also offer training and certification for pet therapy. Your certifying organization can help you find a local nursing home or long-term care facility that welcomes certified therapy pets.

Be prepared to participate in a training course and to confirm that your pet receives regular health screenings. Safeguards such as these ensure that patients served by pet therapy programs receive only the best care and attention.

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