This week, Miss Maybelle and I may spend an hour listening to a child read at the public library, visiting with cancer patients at the hospital, or playing with a group of adults with different learning abilities. She’s the star of the show with her sleek black coat, velvet ears, and wagging tail.
Miss Maybelle is my labrador retriever and we are a visiting animal team registered with Pet Partner. This might also be called pet therapy.
Many different types of pets can be registered to volunteer with you. If you are interested in serving with your pet, here’s how to get started.
What Makes a Good Visiting Animal
Dogs, cats, birds, pocket pets, domestic rabbits, miniature horses, and other tame animals can be visiting animals. Your pet needs to:
- Enjoy interacting with strangers.
- Tolerate handling, even when a little rough or unexpected.
- Listen to their handler or have predictable behaviors.
- Be confident in new environments.
- Adapt to non-household encounters like elevators, rotating doors, and wheelchairs.
How to Become a Team
You will have to do a little digging to find out if there are visiting animal teams in your community and an established system for evaluations. Their specific requirements will guide your next steps.
You may have to take a pet handler’s class. Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society) requires an online or in-person class that teaches the human how to:
- Be a good volunteer with your animal.
- Interact with different populations..
- Handle your pet in a variety of environments.
- Keep confidences in sensitive environments.
- Understand how you are covered by their liability insurance policy. A major benefit of being associated with an official group is the liability insurance in case there an incident to a person or the property when visiting.
The local coordinating organization, like a humane society or visiting animal group, may have an orientation class about their mission and policies. Background checks could be required by a school or hospital prior to volunteering.
Your pet will be evaluated before becoming part of a local or national team. This is not a pop quiz – the organization will let you know about the standards for their evaluations. For large pets, the human handler and animal are guided through a series of tests that will include:
- Acceptance of a stranger’s touch.
- Tolerance of an accidental squeeze or bump.
- Reaction to a group of people talking loudly or yelling.
- Reaction to another animal in the area.
- Ability to resist lunging toward something on the floor.
Evaluations are adapted for smaller animals or those that will be carried.
Evaluations for crisis teams are much more extensive due to the natural of those visits.
Here are some of the national groups that offer classes & testing.
- The American Kennel Club awards the Canine Good Citizen designation to dogs who have successfully completed their test. The CGC is widely accepted by many visiting groups. The AKC website also has a list of large and small pet therapy organizations.
- Pet Partners is another widely recognized evaluation program. Search for a local evaluation here.
- R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) is a national program offered by Intermountain Therapy Animals for dogs that listen to children read at schools or libraries.
You may not have a local group or be near any national evaluation sites but have facilities that want you to visit with your pet. If you decide to work on your own, discuss in detail their expectations and policies with the administrator or volunteer coordinator. Contact your homeowner’s insurance to see if you have liability coverage for any harm caused by your pet. The facility where you visit may also offer insurance coverage for any problems.
Places to Volunteer
In your community, there are unlimited possibilities to volunteer:
- Nursing homes recognize the benefits of having animals visit.
- Hospitals vary in the departments where they allow animals and the visits help the staff and visitors as much as the patients.
- Schools use animals in counseling sessions and to promote reading aloud.
- Colleges bring in animals to relieve the stress of finals week.
Nationally, there are many groups that deploy animal teams during a crisis. Animal teams are invited to an area to help survivors cope with the tragedy.
Responsibilities of Being a Team
Be prepared for the costs to be evaluated and to volunteer. There may be fees for classes, evaluation tests, registrations with organizations, animal vests or scarves, volunteer uniforms for certain facilities, and name badges and tags. When you volunteer, you may need to pay for parking and gas. Many of these expenses can be deductible – so check with your tax professional.
Up-to-date vaccinations and monthly flea and tick treatments for cats and dogs are required to be an active team. Some groups require additional health tests and evaluation of your pet from your veterinarian. Hospitals and schools may require that the human handler have certain vaccinations and pass a TB test.
Appearances are important to a visiting animal team. Prior to each visit, Miss Maybelle needs to be recently brushed, with clean teeth (chicken-flavored toothpaste!), and have her vest in good condition. Baths are a more frequent too.
Many organizations will require that you dress in business casual. The local hospitals require that I purchase a volunteer uniform item like a vest, polo, or scrub jacket and wear it during our visits along with their official volunteer badge.
Sharing the Joy
Miss Maybelle loves going out on the town to share her joy. That makes it worth all the effort to be a visiting animal team. If you have a well-behaved animal, consider working with a program in your community.
Do you volunteer with your pet? Have you encountered a visiting animal team somewhere?