Guest post by Mila Sanchez
We all think our pets are the best, and enjoy spending time with them. Considering the fact that pets can have significant mental health benefits, it’s only natural. Living and interacting with pets helps us fight loneliness — pets love unconditionally, and the soothing rhythm of petting them helps induce calming effects. It was only a matter of time before we realized the healing powers animals bring to those in need of tender love and care (TLC).
Working animals – such as guide dogs and medical response dogs — have been trained to assist people with disabilities and special medical needs for years. It wasn’t until more recently, however, that animals began work in therapy. According to the University of New England, Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is becoming increasingly common in social and medical fields. People are finding a stronger correlation between improved health and increased animal interaction. A wide variety of volunteer opportunities exist around AAT, so it’s easy to find a program that fits your animal-related interests and needs.
Dogs are probably the most commonly deployed animals for therapy. When dogs are trained for therapy, they become certified by recognized organizations, such as the ones listed on the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) website. Not all dogs can be verified as therapeutic; certain temperaments and personality traits are required from therapy dogs. For example, they must love people, have outgoing personalities, and embody a calm demeanor. They should also be reliable and receptive to obedience (e.g. not get too overly excited or stressed in new or overwhelming situations).
Therapy dogs are utilized in many nonprofit organizations. Due to the physical healing effects of interacting with dogs, a therapy dog’s most common task is visiting hospital patients and nursing homes. Their presence and loving interactions help sooth pain and anxiety, helping patients elevate their mood. Interacting and petting therapy dogs has proven to lower blood pressure and release endorphins in patients. Regular visits also give patients something to look forward to.
Find an opportunity to volunteer with therapy dogs in your city.
Therapy dogs are also valuable in helping children with autism. For children with autism, social interactions can often be difficult and stressful ordeals. A therapy dog can be a catalyst of focus for these kids who otherwise have trouble functioning well with their peers. Therapy dogs can be brought in for periodic interaction with kids diagnosed with autism or other disabilities in controlled settings.
Families can also apply for a certified, live-in service dog. Organizations like 4 Paws for Ability and Guiding Eyes for the Blind offer service dogs who are trained to live and serve families with an autistic child.
A more unorthodox — but equally wonderful — volunteer opportunity that incorporates therapy dogs is helping children learn to read. While a dog can’t teach a child how to sound out words, the mere presence of a dog creates a relaxing environment where a child who’s struggling with reading doesn’t feel judged. Reading to dogs is fun, too: a chance to hang out and read to them gives kids — who might not like reading because of their struggle — a more positive association with it.
Surprisingly, horses can be therapeutic animals, too. Horses have many of the same benefits dogs do, in terms of interaction, but on a much bigger scale. They create a low stress environment for interaction, where relationships built with horses can help people learn how to build relationships with other people. Horses have helped treat people with addiction problems. Buiilding a relationship with a horse requires letting your guard down, and being more consistent — both of which are things addicts struggle with.
Like the sound of volunteering with horses and dogs? This program actually helps horses, dogs, and veterans. By taking horses and dogs who have been abandoned or repurposed, and pairing them up with veterans who are suffering from PTSD, Hearts for Heroes Corp provides a mutually beneficial relationship packed with support.
There are countless opportunities to volunteer with therapy animals. Get started today by searching for one in your community on VolunteerMatch.org.
If you are a nonprofit and would like to start incorporating therapy animals into your organization, it’s easy to get started. Contact one of the many certified therapy dog organizations and ask them how you can start working together. Adding animal therapy to your nonprofit is a great way to bring some positive vibes and well-being to your organization.
Bio: Living in beautiful Boise, ID, Mila Sanchez is a writer with a B.A. in English Linguistics. Her ambitions include traveling the world, studying languages, and taking pictures of her dog, Baymax. Learn more by connecting with her on Twitter and Instagram!