Pet Partners: Volunteering with Your Dog, Supporting Your Community
There are so many benefits to volunteering, but one that we, as dog lovers, hold dear is the opportunity to share the unconditional love and boundless joy our dogs have with others. Bonus benefit: we get to spend more time bonding with our dogs on a regular basis. If you are looking to volunteer with your pup, we recommend checking out Pet Partners, which has over 11,000 therapy animal teams – including 9,000 dogs – in all 50 states. Through the organization’s various programs, pets and their owners provide comfort and smiles to people who could use one, including veterans with PTSD, seniors with Alzheimer’s disease, hospital patients, adults with intellectual disabilities and kids learning to read.
“I think people grow closer to their dogs when they’re involved in therapy work because they’re experiencing a lot of different scenarios, settings and people together,” says Mandy Pleshaw, Marketing, PR and Social Media Coordinator for Pet Partners, which is based in Bellevue, Wash. “It really does create a much stronger bond between the handler and the animal.”
The Benefits of Volunteering
And in the process, therapy dogs can make a tremendous impact on someone’s life.
Pleshaw has seen it first-hand when accompanying volunteer George Sallee and his golden retriever Simon to nursing homes.
“The residents just light up when George and Simon come to visit,” she says. “Just watching the animals in action gives them something to talk about and something to look forward to.”
There are even times when seeing Simon or another therapy dog will trigger memories for a patient with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Their family and the nursing staff will just be astonished to hear them start communicating and remembering and smiling and just being happy again,” Pleshaw says. “It’s really powerful.”
Another popular option for Pet Partners teams is to volunteer at libraries and schools to help children who need a boost with their reading skills. Each student is paired with a dog (and handler), and reads a book to the dog.
“It gives the kids a sense of confidence because there’s no judgment there,” Pleshaw says. “The pet’s just there to listen and to help them. So teachers are seeing a lot of improvement when students get involved in the literacy program.”
So what makes a great therapy dog?
Pleshaw says the best therapy dogs are social animals with basic obedience skills who aren’t aggressive toward people or other animals, don’t scare easily, and can tolerate awkward petting. Typically, they love the work – in fact, the initial evaluation done for every volunteer team is designed to ensure the comfort and safety of the animals.
Potential volunteers can visit the volunteer center at PetPartners.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org for detailed information about skills needed for the evaluation test and then work at home or with a trainer to prepare for the exam, such as practicing walking on a loose leash or “leave it.”
“Once you get the information from us, it is really easy to set yourself up for success,” she says.
The test replicates a therapy setting, with exercises to reveal whether a dog is comfortable with wheelchairs passing in a hallway, feeling crowded in a room, being approached from behind by another dog, or hearing loud noises like yelling or a pan dropped on the floor. If a dog doesn’t pass the test the first time, they will be graded “not appropriate” or “not ready” – “not ready” dogs can work on the skills they need to improve and then test again.
If you aren’t quite ready to volunteer with your dog, you can still support the work of Pet Partners each year on Treats and Sweets Day. Every spring, thousands of people across America bake and sell goodies as part of a national bake sale to raise money for the nonprofit. Those fundraising efforts help fund the more than 1 million human-animal therapy visits Pet Partners makes each year.
Pleshaw says she is inspired by the animal lovers who support the organization.
“I hear a lot of volunteers say, ‘My animal makes me so happy, and I just want to share that love with everybody else.’ It’s amazing when people recognize that the happiness and joy their pet brings them could really make a difference for people in need,” she says. “We have the best volunteers in the world.”
For more information about the benefits of the human-animal bond, visit https://petpartners.org/learn/benefits-human-animal-bond/. For information about Treats and Sweets Day, visit http://treatsandsweetsday.donordrive.com/. To volunteer, visit PetPartners.org.
Freelance journalist Jen Reeder and her rescued Lab mix, Rio, have become even closer since they started volunteering at their local hospital as a therapy dog team.