By far, the volunteer activity I find most rewarding is animal assisted therapy. When we first rescued our dog, we thought he may be our main source of giving. That is, we didn’t know what emotional needs he would have, and we were prepared to give him our time and energy to fulfill them. Little did we know that within two years of living with us, he would turn around and spread goodness as a therapy dog for others.
Every time I volunteer with my pet, people say, “That must be such a fun job.” And they’re right—it’s the best. But many folks go on to say, “My pet would never be able to do that,” and that’s where I disagree. An animal doesn’t have to behave like a human to cheer up his or her neighbors. Here are three ways you can volunteer with the pets in your life.
Walk the Talk
The best way to get involved isn’t through a program, but through the people in your neighborhood who can’t readily leave their home. Elderly folks and those with chronic conditions often have companion animals that don’t get out as much as they’d like, and being unable to fill these needs is an awful feeling that can ultimately contribute to physical issues.
Make two lives happy at once by visiting an elderly neighbor regularly and offer to take their pet for a much-needed outing. You don’t need to own a pet, you don’t need any training, and in most cases, you don’t even need a car to provide help for animals in your neck of the woods.
Another distinguished method of volunteering with a pet is through reading programs for children. Genuine physiological changes happen when kids spend time with animals, including a decrease in cortisol, the stress hormone. The result? Positive developmental strides, like new achievements in reading and comprehension.
Developmentally, children know that human relationships are complicated. So when teachers and parents put too much stress on reading, they can unwittingly hinder a child’s motivation to learn. That’s where a friendly animal comes in. Let’s just say when kids are reading to animals, they feel safe from judgment.
To get started, contact your library or public school and ask if they have an animal assisted reading program in place. Request to observe a few sessions without your pet first to see if it’s something you’d like to do. If it is, ask which animal society registers their teams; they’ll direct you to one of the societies that register pet and handler teams, and you’ll be on your way. Once you’ve found that society, request a list of requirements. They’re attainable prerequisites for most pets: well-groomed, calm, predictable animals are great candidates.
Work Like a Dog
If you’re feeling particularly inspired, volunteer with your pet as an animal assisted therapy team. The first doctor on record to use animal assisted therapy in this way was Dr. Charles W. Mayo of the famous Mayo Clinic. There were no certifications for the animal. No standards. No liability insurance. Her toenails weren’t even clipped. But the good doctor saw that the benefits of a visit from Smoky the dog far outweighed the risks for his patients. So today, many animal therapy teams follow her footsteps (or pawprints), and you can too. A typical visit is very low-key, consisting of sitting and talking. Once your pet enters a facility and finds his place, patients and staff will begin asking questions about him. “He likes you,” is the best way to make someone smile with your pet.
Today, the challenge that stops most potential pet and owner volunteer teams is not lack of interest, but the feeling that they’re not good enough to qualify. Standards for pets who volunteer in hospitals and nursing homes have evolved, but the rules are similar to those that work with kids in libraries and schools. Most medical institutions require certification to verify those conditions are met, and the requirements are not overwhelming. Here is a sampling of skills from the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Program, the most widely accepted certification:
- Friendly introductions to strangers
- Calmly allowing touches from new friends
- Neat, healthy physical condition
- Walking with a loose leash (“heel”)
- Walking through pedestrian traffic politely
- Come on command
- Manners when other animals are present
- Calm disposition with distractions
- Able to stay calm for three minutes under supervised separation from handler
Instead of strict training, use visits with others as learning sessions for your pet until he or she can do all of these things naturally.
There are a thousand ways you can help others, but when you and your pet volunteer together, you’ll be the one who benefits the most.
Image source: Bethany Johnson