“They come to life.” That is how Neal Jennings describes the reaction of nursing home residents when he brings an African pygmy pig named Roseanne, two black toy poodles named Jacques and Jill, and a duck with a diaper to greet them. Neal, who started the Pets On Wheels visitation program in Scottsdale, Arizona, 15 years ago, has personally witnessed transformations like these many times.
While snuggling on the couch or playing catch with your pet is enjoyable, there is another way to have fun with your pet, too. Think good deed. You and your pet can volunteer to help people who could use some furry, four-footed assistance.
“It is a great way to have special bonding time with your pet and a good chance to give back to the community,” says Dr. Richard Stolper, who owns the Scottsdale Ranch Animal Hospital and examines dogs and cats before they can be accepted into the Pets On Wheels program.
What pets do at home to give you that feel-good feeling easily transfers to others. Companion animals provide a respite from pain and infirmity. They are natural healers for both adults and children who may have a life-threatening illness and are isolated in nursing homes, hospitals, and other centers. Visiting with a pet relieves stress for people, sparks happier memories of better times, provides entertainment, and offers a welcome change from routine.
You and your pet can also become involved in animal-assisted therapy programs, where specially trained and certified animals are vital in treating individual patients. This is different than a visitation program. With animal-assisted therapy, the therapist uses the animals during treatment sessions.
Pets have the uncanny sixth sense to see and feel what others cannot, and they can relay those feelings for the benefit of others. It does not seem to matter if the human–dog team is involved in search and rescue work, therapy visits at hospitals or nursing homes, or “show-and-tell” pet education presentations at schools. “There is an aura about them of trust and joy that is serendipitous,” says Dr. T.J. Dunn, Jr., a veterinarian in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, who treats dogs and cats that participate in therapy programs.
HELPING IS HEALTHY
Aside from performing a valuable service for others, volunteering with your pet is healthy for everyone. Animals enjoy getting out and sharing new experiences with their owners. “It is great for the pets because they have a chance to step out of their normal routine,” Dr. Dunn notes.
According to the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine Center for the Human–Animal Bond, when people are around animals their blood pressure goes down, they feel less anxiety, and they have a general feeling of well-being. Research shows that patients who visit with animals are more likely to recover after a heart attack and are less troubled by minor health complaints like headache, backache, and flu.
When children require extensive stays at the hospital and must face medical procedures and treatments, they dearly miss their home and their pets. This can be a frightening time for children, but sitting with a rabbit on their lap or stroking a cat gives them an opportunity to play, be comforted, and express themselves, just as they would at home. For a short time, their stress and discomfort vanish.
Volunteering also benefits you and your pet. Dr. Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human–Animal Bond and the coauthor of Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship, advises that helping out with your pet gives you a wonderful opportunity to spend quality time together at the same time you are bringing joy to others.
“You are appreciated in a unique way,” Dr. Beck says. “When people see you with an animal, you are already assumed to be a caring person. You have a common bond and you can go past the awkward stage of introductions and easily move right into talking about the dog or other animal.”
OPPORTUNITIES FOR CRITTER COMFORTS
There is a wide range of volunteer activities for loving owners and their pets. The following guide can help get you and your pet started on the volunteer track:
- Animal-Assisted Therapy—Pets assist physical and occupational therapists in meeting the rehabilitation goals of adults or children in a variety of settings, including hospitals and residential care centers.
- Therapeutic Horseback Riding—These programs help physically disabled children improve balance and mobility.
- Therapeutic Visitation—Pets visit hospitals, nursing homes, detention facilities, and rehabilitation centers to interact with adults or children who are residents or patients.
- Pets Reading with Children—In these local programs at libraries and schools, pets sit and listen to children who struggle with reading aloud in a group.
- Visiting at Schools—Pets help to educate children in the classroom about the proper care and training of animals and how to avoid injury from animals.
- Search and Rescue—Dogs locate missing people in hazardous terrain. Extensive training is required.
- Water Rescue—Dogs with superior swimming ability help to rescue victims in swift-moving or deep water.
- Tracking and Trailing Dogs—Any dog can learn to track and follow a scent.
To locate specific volunteer programs in your area, contact your local hospitals, residential health care facilities, senior centers, and kennel clubs. Find out what the health and training requirements are before you clip on the leash or get out the pet carrier.
MINUTES OR HOURS
Whether you volunteer for a few minutes or a few hours once or even several times a week, you will be providing unconditional affection and friendship for you, your pet, and the community. It’s furry, free love anytime it’s there.
Dogs and cats are not the only animals that make good volunteers. There is a long list of comfort creatures, from guinea pigs, gerbils, parakeets, and cockatoos to fish, iguanas, rabbits, and chickens. Even a well-behaved donkey, pot-bellied pig, goat, or horse can get into the act. If he is part of your family, likes the job, and is well behaved, chances are your beloved pet can be a candy striper, too.
There is a special group of Shetland ponies that bring joy and comfort to critically ill children throughout the country. Personal Ponies is a nonprofit organization of volunteers who take small, trained Shetland ponies to visit children with cancer or disabilities at camps, convalescent homes, schools, and daycare centers. The ponies participate in therapeutic riding programs and give children a chance to love and care for them. “When you see a child smile and hug a small, hairy pony, you will not have to wonder whether the work we do is important,” says Marianne Alexander, National Director of Personal Ponies.
The 36-inch ponies must lead quietly beside a wheelchair, take the clamor of the brass brand in a parade with aplomb, and lovingly accept the hugs of a dozen eager children with patience and care. Caretaker volunteers help out by cleaning tack, making warm winter blankets for the tiny ponies, bathing and grooming older ponies, greeting visitors, transporting ponies to events, and supervising visiting children.
Sponsors maintain a pony for families that cannot keep one at their own home and often are instrumental in helping children learn to bond with and care for their pony. For more information, visit www.personalponies.org.
PETS NEED TRAINING
Because some pets may not make good volunteers, most pet therapy and visitation organizations screen animals before accepting them into their programs. Although every group has different health and training requirements, all pets should:
- Pass the American Kennel Club (www.akc.org) Canine Good Citizenship test demonstrating basic good manners or receive certification from the Delta Society Pet Partners Program (www.deltasociety.org) or Therapy Dogs International (www.tdi-dog.org).
- Be well behaved and have good manners, including walking on a leash without pulling or jumping up.
- Be confident around noisy equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers, and IV poles.
- Be relaxed around noise and loud talking.
- Enjoy greeting strangers and being petted.
- Receive a veterinary examination and have a clean bill of health.
- Be clean and odor free.
Pet volunteers do not need to know a lot of tricks. There are no breed or size requirements. All it takes is a warm heart, a gentle nature, and some time, and your pet can make life a little better for somebody else just by being there.