Therapy Dogs – Benefiting Those in Need as Well as Themselves

By Anne Saber
WellPetUSA Volunteer

When reading articles regarding pet therapy, the focus is generally on the human recipient of this volunteer activity. Working with your pet to provide therapy and companionship to the elderly, to children or those with illness can also benefit the animal greatly. When I responded to an article in my local newspaper for such volunteers it was largely on behalf of my dog! As a good natured, 7 year old Keeshond living very happily with three cats, I noticed a big increase in his energy whenever he encountered dogs or new people on his walks and in the park. Without the contact he tended to become depressed and lethargic. The newspaper article indicated that a local organization needed volunteers and would be holding information sessions and "interviews" soon; I called and signed us up.

Therapy dogs and service dogs do not perform the same service, although both are valuable contributors in society. Service dogs are specially trained to assist a person with an identified disability and the requirements for such an animal are tailored to the individual's needs. Most times the service dog is trained and then permanently placed with someone who has met the medical qualifications of the benefit. Common examples are dogs for the blind, deaf, wheelchair bound or for patients with conditions such as epilepsy.

In contrast, therapy dogs perform their work by invitation along with their owner/handler and do not typically undergo any special training. Examples of facilities that therapy dogs visit are hospitals, nursing homes, children's homes and rehabilitation sites. Because therapy dogs can be any breed and have may or may not have obedience training, the facilities usually require assurance that their patients will be comfortable and safe around your pet.

The first step in the process was for the owner/handlers (without their pets) to attend an orientation session to learn what the program was all about. An animal control officer also spoke to us about the type of temperament required and explained step two in the process – a real-time evaluation of me and my dog around other dogs, owners and commonly encountered situations and distractions. When we attended the evaluation session Keesha excelled – he mingled well with the other dogs, walked right past a live rooster and ducks without lunging at them, and sat patiently next to a volunteer in a wheelchair so she could pet him. He was unruffled when they shook a cane at him and rattled coins in a can. We were thrilled to leave the session with our "Good Canine Citizen" paper in hand.

Lastly, the owners went on a trial visit to a nursing home to watch other owner/handlers and their dogs interact with the residents. The joy on the patients' faces was moving. Many wanted to hold or stroke the dogs and relate stories about their own beloved pet. Based on geographical location and availability Keesha and I were assigned to a county children's home as part of a once per month group visit.

Keesha took his responsibility very seriously. He knew that when he put on his volunteer scarf and leash he was going to work, and after only one or two visits he sat up attentively in the car as we neared the facility. Spending a Saturday afternoon with ten to fifteen other dogs, their owners and up to fifty children was his idea of a perfect day. Some of the dogs liked to run on leash with the kids and others liked to play with toys. Keesha's low key personality was more suited to sitting quietly so the little ones could cuddle with him or groom him as we listened to them talk about pets they had left behind. He seemed to know that he had made a difference in their lives.

Keesha obviously provided much comfort to the children but we also received what we had signed up for – some pet therapy for a dog who loved people, new places and meeting as many new canine friends as he could. Several years later my job took us to another state and we have not yet connected with another pet therapy organization but we may do that soon.

Where to start? Looking on the Internet is an excellent place to begin. Search on 'pet therapy' and you will find a detailed description of this volunteer activity and links to such organizations. Another place to start is by contacting your local Humane Society and inquiring about volunteer opportunities. In most cases there is no fee to volunteer, only your time and willingness to share your pet with others. It is well documented that pet therapy has excellent results in treating depression, loneliness and other conditions where patients have undergone a change in their lives that makes them feel disconnected. Many times they will relate to an animal when they are unable to relate to another human being. An often overlooked fact is that the activity also enriches the pet's life and contributes to their well-being.

© Anne Saber and WellPetUSA, Inc., 2001. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without prior permission of WellPetUSA, Inc. For permission to reprint or reproduce this article, please contact WellPetUSA, Inc. at


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