Man’s best friend is also one of man’s best healers. Pet therapy dogs are widely recognized in the healthcare community for their ability to improve patient outcomes. Their happy faces and fuzzy paws open doors and hearts to the healing process.
Pet therapy – also called animal-assisted therapy – helps people cope with serious health problems. Unlike service dogs, which cannot be touched, pet therapy dogs are meant to be petted and even held. Their affectionate touch and calming presence reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and improves mood and energy levels.
Therapy dogs offer a valuable service to patients. In order to volunteer in the hospital, pet therapy animals and handlers complete training and are reevaluated every two years. Prepared to handle high-stress situations, these canines and their owners have clearance to serve in all areas of the hospital – including the intensive care unit and emergency department. Doctors and other clinical staff can request a visit from the pet therapy team if a patient needs comforting.
Gifted with the desire for human connection, dogs have a natural instinct to comfort people in emotional, mental or physical distress. Their ability to pinpoint pain helps them to recognize patients with the greatest need and offer temporary relief from pain or discomfort. When a patient feels discouraged, unsettled or depressed, a loving nudge from a therapy dog can offer the strength and encouragement they need to continue treatment and rehabilitation.
Pet therapy doesn’t just help patients. Families, visitors and staff also experience the benefits of the program. For families whose loved ones have been admitted to the hospital, therapy dogs offer a welcome distraction. After a long, stressful work day, employees enjoy a comforting nuzzle from these furry friends too.
Although anyone can apply to be a pet therapy volunteer, not every person (or every dog) is suited for the job. Volunteering in a stressful environment can prove challenging for both handlers and their animals. Dogs and their owners must remain calm and focused when emotions run high, and trust each other in hard situations. A good handler knows their dog’s trigger points and will step away if their dog is feeling anxious or fearful.
To register as a pet therapy handler, volunteers and their dogs take a course, complete a screening process and pass an in-person team evaluation. To volunteer in a hospital, handlers must pass background checks, complete additional training and register with a pet therapy program. Volunteer handlers need to make sure their dogs are up-to-date on all vaccinations, and are well-groomed and bathed prior to patient interaction.
For those with a desire to help others, becoming a pet therapy volunteer can be an incredibly rewarding experience – both for the dogs and their owners. To find out if your four-legged friend would make a good therapy dog, visit petpartners.org.
About the Author: Sue Hicks is a certified master groomer, owner of Lucky Dog, LLC, a pet boarding and grooming business in Joplin, Missouri. She leads a team of seven volunteer handlers and 13 dogs with Pet Partners pet therapy program. Sue and her canine companions enjoy bringing smiles to patients at Freeman Health System.