Every week 17-year-old Melanie Adelman and her mom, Laurie, visit an after-school program for high-risk children. In the classroom these kids have problems with reading, but here they feel relaxed and ready to learn. The difference? Stetson, an 8-year-old toy poodle and certified therapy dog, sits by their side.
Therapy dogs are household pets registered or certified through an organization to bring positive energy, stress relief, and encouragement to those in need. Good-tempered and obedient, these animals visit adults and children in hospitals, nursing and rehabilitation facilities, schools, and libraries.
But it's not just the people who gain something—exposure to unfamiliar folks and places can help a dog stay active and youthful. "If someone has a pet that is laid-back but has become a couch potato, one of the best things to do is take the animal out of the house," says Billie Smith, administrative manager at Therapy Dogs Inc.
Volunteering with your dog on a weekly or monthly basis is a fun and fulfilling way for your family to learn proper animal-handling skills while giving back to the community. For the less outgoing volunteer, working beside a furry friend takes the pressure off interacting with strangers one-on-one. "In stressful situations, animals provide comfort to help people open up to others," says JoAnn Turnbull, marketing director at Delta Society Pet Partners, which oversees the Pet Partners visiting-animals program. And enrolling in a therapy-dog program is also a great way for kids to develop a stronger relationship with their pet.
Your pup might be a good fit for a therapy-dog program if he:
- Has lived with you for at least six months and is older than one year. Dogs of any size or breed can qualify, as long as they don't show aggression or bite.
- Has a good personality. He should be naturally obedient and love being around people.
- Is disease-free and up-to-date with vaccinations. Most programs demand rabies shots and some require fecal exams. Your vet must fill out a form giving your dog a clean bill of health and then conduct annual reexaminations.
- Is house-broken and groomed regularly. Nails should be short and hair groomed to prevent shedding.
- Has mastered basic obedience commands, like "sit," "stay," "stand," and "come." Not every organization provides training, so if you think you and your pup need more guidance, choose a program with instructor-led workshops or home study courses.
How to become a therapy-dog team:
- Find dog-therapy programs in your area and consider their time and age requirements. Depending on how long it takes your organization to complete the evaluation process, expect to wait one to six months before making your first unsupervised visit.
- Schedule a behavior and aptitude test with one of the organization's evaluators. The observation often takes place during a public outing or in a facility you'll visit once you're certified. It's important to see that the dog wants to participate, says Turnbull. Evaluators look at how you and your dog react to scenarios that might occur during a visit, like if medicine drops to the floor or if there is rough petting from a stranger.
- As soon as you are cleared for visitations, learn about the volunteering opportunities. Reasons for visits can vary widely, from keeping a pre-surgical patient company to helping a child with special needs, so it may take time to find something that suits you and your dog. Smith recommends limiting your visit to one to two hours a day to prevent the animal from becoming exhausted from the extra contact and attention.
Check out these national organizations to learn more or to sign up:
Delta Society has more than 10,000 volunteers nationwide and accepts Pet Partners volunteers starting at 10 years old. They also allow other pets—including cats, rabbits, and birds—to participate.
Therapy Dogs Inc. allows children ages 12 to 16 to become handlers through the approval of an Exceptions Committee and requires its 12,000 members to complete a minimum of four annual visits.
Therapy Dogs International has no minimum age requirement and doesn't allow dogs to be registered by multiple organizations. Its 19,000 members represent the oldest and largest therapy dog organization in the United States.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.