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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:
How to become a therapy-dog team:
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.