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Is Your Dog Suitable for Pet Therapy Work?

Studies have shown that pets help us to lead healthier, happier lives. It has been widely accepted that there are all sorts of health and emotional benefits when we are able to interact with these happy, loving bundles of fur. is usually performed by a group of volunteers and their pets. Pets are most often dogs, but cats and rabbits sometimes work in pet therapy as well. There was even a story of a miniature horse working pet therapy!

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These two- and four-legged volunteers visit long-term care facilities, hospitals, centers for youth in distress, and more. Volunteers visit with the residents, and communicate with them through their pets.

Not every pet is suitable. Volunteer organizations that run pet assisted therapy groups typically screen both the volunteers and the pets. Your pet may be a candidate for pet assisted therapy if he or she:

  • Loves people. This is essential, otherwise your pet will not find the experience enjoyable. Some pets love their own families and the people they know, but otherwise aren't interested in people. Pets who do well as therapy pets have to love pretty much everyone, including strangers.

  • Gets along with other pets. Your pet needs to be well-socialized and able to tolerate other dogs, cats, and possibly even rabbits. The pets in a therapy group don't have to be best friends but they do need to be able to ignore each other or be polite. No chasing and no fighting should be tolerated (but playing is okay after "work hours"!).

  • Well-mannered. Your pet doesn't need to be an obedience champion, but should respond to basic commands such as sit, stay, down, and come, and 'no'. 'No' is actually very important; in places like long-term care facilities and hospitals, you may occasionally come across medication that has been accidentally dropped on the ground - a quick 'No!' should stop your pet from picking it up and ingesting it.

  • Non-reactive to loud, sudden, or strange noises, unusual equipment, and all types of handling. The screening process will test your pet's reaction to these situations and more. You and your pet may encounter walkers, canes, medical equipment, shouting, unusual noises, and sometimes pure chaos. Sometimes a resident or patient may grab your pet unexpectedly. Therapy pets need to be well-adjusted and capable of responding calmly to unexpected situations.

  • Physically laid-back. Residents of long-term care facilities and hospitals in particular may be frail or feeling unwell. It's not appropriate to have dogs jumping or pawing, body-checking or even something as being overly 'kissy' (remember that important word, 'No!'? -- this is another situation where it can help). If your dog doesn't pass the screening process, it may just mean he or she needs a few more years to mature before trying again.

  • Clean, healthy, and well-groomed. Residents of long-term care facilities and hospitals may be more vulnerable to germs and illnesses.

My dogs were pet assisted therapy dogs at a long-term care facility for many years. It is a fantastically rewarding experience. There are some people whose faces will light up as soon as they see the dogs. Some of the residents don't say a single word to other people; but they talk to the dog, and for a while they're relaxed and happy. Other residents are quieter; nursing staff told us that some of them would go into the lounge and wait for us all day long when they knew we were coming. Then, once we arrived, they'd simply sit and pet the dogs, smiling to themselves.

As for the dogs? Mine always somehow knew when we were going for visits. They were happy and eager, and would start whining in anticipation once we arrived in the parking lot.

The nurses and nurses' assistants have said that after our visits, the residents are happier and healthier - there is noticeable change in their well-being, and for some even their blood pressure is lower.

If pet assisted therapy is something you'd like to try, contact your local organization. Many pets adore it (my dogs were always excited when it was "working night") ... and it's a wonderful way for both you and your pet to give back to your community.