At the library, where Rex and I volunteer to help children improve their reading, Rex hears the same book read aloud for the second time. He perks his ears and tilts his head, tail drumming against the library floor. While some of the other dogs prefer to sleep, Rex listens intently and interrupts the young reader to reward her with a kiss. When she stumbles over a difficult word, Rex wags his tail, not a finger, and snuggles into her lap.
A sturdy Pit Bull mix, Rex may not be what you picture when you imagine a therapy dog. Yet he’s perfectly suited for the job. He has the manners of Queen Elizabeth and the patience of Buddha— and eagerly kisses babies or anyone else willing to accept a smooch.
As a certified pet therapy team, Rex and I work with local literacy programs and tour hospitals to enhance the education, happiness, and health of the people we visit. Research suggests animal companionship can lower blood pressure, increase lifespan, diminish stress and depression, and improve overall wellness. You don’t need to own a dog—or any pet, for that matter—to help people heal. Here’s where to start:
Assess your pet’s personality. “Therapy pets are born, not made,” explains Heather Toland, director of the DoveLewis Animal Assisted Therapy and Education program in Portland, Ore. Even if your pet is well trained, its personality is paramount. The ideal pet (dogs, cats, rabbits, fish, rodents, horses, llamas, and even tarantulas can participate) is gentle, friendly, predictable, and even-tempered.
Get certified. Most volunteer programs require pets and their handlers to complete a training course and become certified as a therapy team. The Delta Society (deltasociety.org), Therapy Dogs, Inc. (therapydogs.com), Therapy Dogs International (tdi-dog.org), and many local organizations offer certification. (See dogplay.com for training courses near you.)
Pick the right program. Therapy pets are valuable in a variety of settings. They bring joy and companionship to patients in nursing homes and hospitals, support student learning in schools and libraries, and facilitate socialization and rehabilitation at prisons and residential treatment centers. Your certifying organization can help you find the best environment for you and your pet to ensure a good experience for everyone.
Volunteer. If you don’t own a pet or if your pet isn’t particularly social or otherwise suited to the job, you can still volunteer to help coordinate trainings and programs. You can also partner with a friend’s pet if your bond with the animal is strong.