How Your Pet Can Lend a Helping Paw to Others
Introducing the GOOD Guide to Smart Living with City Pets. This series, brought to you by GOOD in partnership with Purina ONE®, explores how pet owners can keep city pets happy, healthy, and balanced, so that pets enjoy being part of their community as much as their owners do. Check out more stories at GOOD Pets.
Demand for therapy animals is huge—especially in cities. The more people you live around, the more opportunities you and your pet have to make a difference. For city dogs, it can also be a great way to get them out of the apartment and socialize with friendly faces. Find out whether your dog is a good candidate and what types of potential good deeds await.
Therapy Animals vs. Service Animals
Though some people tend to use these terms interchangeably, they are quite different. Service animals are trained by professionals to perform more specialized types of tasks, for example, leading the visually impaired or searching for victims of disasters. These dogs are often owned by the person in need, a first-responder or police officer, or a professional organization. However “any dog with basic obedience skills and a passionate owner can be a therapy animal,” says Paula Scott-Ginn of Pet Partners, a therapy animal program based in Bellevue, Washington.
First and foremost, therapy dogs need to be comfortable and happy around strangers, says Scott-Ginn, especially because crowds tend to form around these animals—especially when they visit kids. Certified professional dog trainer Renee Payne says that a dog’s key socialization period is between two and four months old. “The window doesn’t totally close after that, [but] it’s crucial to make sure that your dog has good experiences around other people during that phase of his life.” If you’ve adopted an older dog, Scott-Ginn says he should be at least a year old and have lived with you for a year so that a certain level of trust has been formed. “But any animal that is too focused on his or her owner is not a good candidate,” she says.
Pet Partners offers a course for the owner and requires an evaluation of that person with their pet. You can either complete the online course, or sign up for in-person sessions with a qualified trainer. “But we train the people, not the dogs,” says Scott-Ginn. The instruction covers everything from patient confidentiality to animal health to facility codes. After completing the program, you and your pet will be registered for up to two years, and you'll have liability insurance when volunteering, access to local instructors, referral information to find organizations who need therapy services, and more.
“There is a huge demand for therapy animals,” says Scott-Ginn. “Probably thousands of opportunities.” Hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, schools, physical therapy clinics, extended-care facilities—all of these places are usually in need, especially in busy cities. Once you and your dog are registered, you’ll have access to the Pet Partners national directory of facilities seeking volunteers. Or, if you have a local place in mind without an animal therapy program, Pet Partners will teach you how to approach a facility about setting one up. Though it might be tempting to max out your dog’s calendar, Scott-Ginn says visits should be limited to no more than a couple of hours a week to prevent your pet from getting overstressed or overworked.
For many dogs, these visits are a break from boredom. “It’s like play to them,” says Scott-Ginn. “Especially because of all the petting and cuddling.” But the largest benefit, of course, is to the people. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that a patient opened their eyes for the first time in weeks after a dog walked in her room,” says Scott-Ginn. The dogs give many people, who might be lonely or in pain, something to look forward to. Therapy animals have even helped kids who have difficulty reading because they are less shy when a dog is present. “But mostly, it’s about bringing joy.”
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This is part four of five in the GOOD Guide to Smart Living with City Pets
Illustration by Zoe Zoe Sheen