Volunteering With Your Dog - Worth a Little Extra Time!

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Life has gotten so busy, hasn’t it? It seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done (because there aren’t!). It’s so easy to get swept up in the craziness of day-to-day life that it can be a challenge to carve out time for activities that help us stay energized.

But as we all know, it’s so important to try to prioritize things that make us happy. When we look back on a year, we won’t remember an extra hour spent at work or doing chores. What always stands out are the memories of special times spent with loved ones – and of course, that includes our dogs! A game of fetch or a hike in the woods is always fun, but for a truly rewarding experience, you might want to consider volunteering with your dog.

I know – that sounds crazy! Add something else to an already too-full schedule? But here’s the thing: there are ways to volunteer with your dog that require very little training or time commitment but are immensely rewarding.

I’ve certainly found that to be true. A few years ago, I had my Labrador retriever mix, Rio, certified as a therapy dog with Therapy Dogs International. All he had to do was pass the test – no special training classes were required (though I admit we did extra training to make sure he would obey “Leave it!” with tantalizing treats on the ground). Once he was certified, we spent our first “shift” shadowing an experienced therapy dog team at the local hospital and then started visiting on our own or with another team two nights a month. Visits typically last about an hour.

Rio loves meeting new friends, so he wags his tail constantly as lots of different people pet him and tell him he’s a good boy. It’s wonderful to see him bring smiles to the faces of patients, worried visitors and stressed hospital employees. In one hour, we might visit with a large family from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, a young couple from out of state, children waiting to hear how their dad’s surgery went, a man with Down syndrome, a college student with a broken leg, and an older guy doing “laps” with his walker and a nurse pulling his IV stand. It’s really cool to watch my dog be an icebreaker for such a diverse group of people in such a short amount of time.

It also puts life into perspective. It’s hard to think a stress-inducing email is a true “crisis” when you meet people in physical pain or who are concerned about their health. I’ll never forget the woman in a hospital bed who lit up when she saw Rio trot into her room and asked incredulously, “Is that a dog?” Then she turned to her son and exclaimed, “I guess I CAN still see a little bit!” Rio kissed her hands, stared into her eyes, and wagged like crazy as she laughed and stroked his ears. Meanwhile, love filled my heart to the absolute brim and might have even splashed over a bit.

There are a lot of great therapy animal programs across the country for a variety of situations and settings. For instance, Therapy Dogs International (TDI) has a “Tail Waggin’ Tutors” program where children with literacy issues read to therapy dogs to bolster their confidence. TDI teams also visit nursing homes, assisted living facilities, safe houses for women and children fleeing domestic violence, funeral homes, and cancer centers. They also respond to natural disasters.

If helping your dog to become a therapy dog isn’t a good fit but you’d still like to volunteer with your dog, another option is opening your home to foster a puppy, dog or cat for a local animal shelter or rescue group. A home environment is less stressful than living in a cage at a shelter and helps prepare the animal for life in a “forever home.” Your dog helps the animal feel comfortable around pets and teaches good at-home behavior. Plus, your dog gets a new playmate out of the bargain and you get the reward of knowing you’ve helped save a life. Everybody wins!

Ultimately, our schedules will fill up no matter what we do, but life is short. Prioritizing an activity that gives back to the community, strengthens our bond with our dogs, and brings us joy is well-worth a little extra time.

For more information about Therapy Dogs International, visit http://www.tdi-dog.org/.