Therapy pets are similar to the average pet because they offer stress relief, comfort, and affection. However, therapy animals differ because they are specially trained to travel to and remain calm in various environments, such as nursing homes, hospitals, and college campuses.
Because therapy pets must be able to tolerate potentially stressful situations, such as a crowded room of people, only pets that have been properly trained and temperament tested should be certified as a therapy pet. Once certified, volunteering with your pet and helping community members can be a fun and rewarding experience.
Kit Darling, an infection control coordinator at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, said a lot of evaluation goes into certifying therapy pets. Potential therapy pets must pass a temperament test, which evaluates the animal and its owner as a team and consists of the animal meeting a person it does not know and demonstrating basic obedience commands. Passing a temperament test is extremely important for the safety of the animal and those interacting with the animal during visits.
Other training, such as remaining calm during loud sounds and while being touched in different areas of the body, comes in handy while going on visits. Darling, who volunteers with Aggieland Pets with a Purpose (APWAP), often takes her therapy dogs to provide emotional relief for those in nursing homes or hospitals. In this case, Darling’s dogs must be comfortable around wheelchairs, walkers and canes.
With all the places a therapy pet may travel, it’s easy to see why not all animals are fit to be therapy pets. However, for the special animals that do have a calm and patient temperament, Darling said you can start training your pet by introducing it to different people, including children and older adults. Visiting diverse settings, such as parks, outdoor venues, or outdoor restaurants is also a good way to socialize your animal.
“It is also helpful to attend obedience classes,” Darling said. “Socialize your dog or cat with other animals and work with your pet so that they tolerate being touched by you and others.”
If you want to take the steps to certify your animal for therapy work, Darling recommended finding a local organization to volunteer with, such as APWAP. Serving the community and spreading love through therapy pets is really rewarding, Darling said.
But remember, not all animals are fit to be therapy pets. Darling reminds pet owners that potential therapy animals must have a calm and stable temperament. They should enjoy interacting with people, even in large crowds, and be tolerant of other animals.
“Overall, therapy pets should tolerate stressful situations without becoming distressed, aggressive, or exhibit any behavior that could be dangerous,” Darling said.
To learn more about APWAP, visit www.apwap.org.
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