Pet Therapy Facilitating

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If you have a pet, you know that animals make wonderful friends. They're joyful companions when times are good; and have soft, furry shoulders to lean on when times are bad. Pets calm us and cheer us, motivate and enliven us.

This is the logo of The Foundation for Pet Provided Therapy. Its goal is to support and encourage the positive interaction between pets and people.
Courtesy of: Foundation for Pet Provided Therapy

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a pet, however. Seniors who live in care homes and people in hospital rarely get to see animals. That's a shame, especially since it's been proven that animals can actually help improve your health!

This is how pet therapy got invented. People who had pets decided if they "shared" their animals, it would help other people. It worked out so well, that now it's called "pet therapy" or "animal-assisted therapy." Even doctors approve of it!

Pet therapy is a relatively new treatment option for stroke victims, the elderly, the mentally challenged and the terminally ill. The people who share their pets are called "pet therapy facilitators," since they facilitate pet therapy.

There are many organizations that are involved in pet therapy. They recruit volunteers with pets (usually dogs), conduct training, and organize therapy visits.

Therapy pets can be of benefit in many situations and settings, according to the organization Pets and People: Companions in Therapy and Service. The pets provide a warm, loving atmosphere in nursing homes and hospitals and work as an aide in psychotherapy.

Likewise, they serve as an incentive and a partner for physical therapy. They can also be helpful during crisis interventions. Finally, they provide an educational experience for children at day-care centers, schools and special education classrooms.

It takes a special person to get involved. "Take a look at yourself," says Mary Merchant, a volunteer with St. John Ambulance, which runs a dog therapy program.

"Are you prepared for the hospital or nursing home setting? Realize that you'll be sharing your pet but you'll be there, too. If you're uncomfortable in those situations then you need to re-evaluate what you're doing. This isn't just another fun thing to do with your dog. It isn't like playing Frisbee."

Volunteers must be able to share their pet regularly. Most agencies ask you to commit to at least one visit a month (of two to three hours each) but you can always do more. Some organizations require a minimum three-month commitment.

Generally, there is no age limit but the volunteer must be in full control of the animal. As such, children under 12 are recommended to volunteer with an adult.

As for the pet, eligibility rules vary. For example, Pet Partners requires that the animals be well behaved and more than one year old. Animals including dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, turtles, hamsters, guinea pigs, and others can get involved. The only pets excluded are ferrets and lizards or exotic animals.

Before a dog can be accepted into a pet therapy program, it has to pass an exam even more rigorous than the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizenship Test. The dog must know all the basic commands, plus, it must have a calm, non-aggressive temperament.

Organizations usually provide a veterinarian to conduct these pet exams at no charge. They will evaluate your pet to see if it is suitable for therapy work. They perform a number of checks to determine both temperament and physical health.

To be a volunteer, your pet must have current vaccinations and be free of parasites. A medical exam is required once a year.

Before you and your pet start visiting people in hospitals and day-care centers, you'll both need some training.

For example, animals will be trained to be comfortable with items like wheelchairs, crutches and any other equipment patients and therapists may use. This isn't easy for all animals: only one-third of the dogs who apply pass the test on the first try.

Some organizations charge fees for their training courses. For example, Pet Partners charges $75 for an animal handlers skills course, and $15 for testing and certification. There may be other fees like harnesses and identification items like bandannas and patches. Typically, these are one-time costs.

During training, you and your pet will learn how to conduct yourselves during therapy visits. For instance, you will learn:

-not all people like dogs and some may be afraid. If that's the case, politely back off

-when you approach someone who is paralyzed on one side, bring the dog to the unaffected side

-always be respectful and an attentive, non-judgmental listener

-dogs should not be allowed in dining or food preparation areas. It's helpful to find out what times meals are served and avoid visiting at these times

If you enjoy this activity, you might consider a career combining animals and therapy. While few people make a living solely as animal-assisted therapists, that may change in the future.

Pat Gonser, PhD, who founded Pets and People, says it may soon be more than a hobby. Gonser is a professor of nursing and has written the curriculum for a college course for animal-assisted therapy facilitators.

Getting Started

"You'll need a college degree in nursing, psychology or sociology if you have any hopes to make this a professional choice," Gonser says.

"Get as much hands-on experience as you can," says Daniela Ortner, executive director of International Wildlife Education and Conservation in California.

"The real knowledge comes from practical experiences, not so much from theoretical classes. Do any volunteer position you can get your hands on. Challenge yourself and be persistent with others. Travel as much as you can."


Therapy Dogs Inc.

Canine Therapy Corps


Furry Friends -- Pet Assisted Therapy
A nonprofit organization that "licks loneliness" by taking our pets to "shut-ins" at hospitals, convalescent homes and children's facilities

The Latham Foundation
A nonprofit organization promoting respect for all life through education

Amazing Therapy Animals
Read the stories of some special therapy animals

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