Can Your Dog Be a Volunteer?

Can Your Dog Be a Volunteer?

At some point, every dog owner has wondered if it would be possible to take everything their dog offers - peace, love, charm, wit - and share it with others.  After all, we know what subtle and powerful benefits come with pet ownership.  Why not do a good turn by sharing it with those less fortunate?  In this article, we'll explore dogs that volunteer and what it takes to become one of them. Maybe your dog would make a great therapy dog!

What do therapy dogs do?
Everyone loves dogs, and when people are going through hard times, the presence of a dog can be a huge comfort.  Studies have shown that petting a dog lowers a person's blood pressure and calms their heart rate.  The act of stroking a dog makes a person relax.  This is great for people who are recovering from traumas, Alzheimer's patients, nursing home residents, people in the hospital, and cancer patients.  It's been shown that workers perform better when they've had a break to meet a dog, and children do better at reading out loud when there's a dog present.  Dogs that do this kind of visitation work are called therapy dogs. 

The "Read to a Dog" program is going strong in libraries and schools across the country.  Research has found that when kids are struggling with reading, their blood pressure shoots up, making it even harder to perform when they're called on.  When a dog enters the scene, kids' blood pressure often goes down to a gentle resting rate.  Even better, when kids read out loud to a dog, they get a much-needed boost in confidence.  Often when kids are learning they read, they worry about getting things wrong and looking stupid in front of others.  When they're reading to a dog, they're free of that worry and can concentrate on the story.  Learn more at the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) website.

Researchers have learned that a good therapy dog manages to change the entire situation.  Often, he draws attention outward, turns off anxiety, anger and depression, helps people feel safe, creates intimacy, and increases the positive expectations of everyone involved. Therapy dogs provide comfort, companionship, a tactile experience, and good humor.  

Who can be a therapy dog?
To become a therapy dog, your pup must be tested and registered with a local therapy dog society.  There are several: Therapy Dogs International, the Delta Society, Alpha Society, and St John Ambulance.  Most READ and other therapy programs will only admit registered dogs.  But how do you know if your dog would make a good candidate?  

Therapy dogs are well behaved, smart, and clean, with good manners and a good attitude.  They are animals people can’t resist.  They're beautifully groomed, calm, and reliable.  They're patient with children and can listen and obey in strange, distracting situations.  If that sounds like your dog -- or the adult dog that your young dog could grow up to be -- then read on!

In order to register with a therapy dog group, you and your dog must take a test administered by a recognized evaluator.  The evaluator will watch to see how your dog behaves coming into a new situation, greeting a new person, and reacting to petting and questioning.  In addition, you may need to take something like the AKC Good Citizen test. To get started, contact your local therapy dog organization to see if they offer any classes or other instruction, then sign up for a test. Dogs can be of any size, and cats make great therapy animals, too!
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