Sometimes Everybody Needs a Little Therapy...Pet

Therapy pets spread joy and affection for special populations such as elderly citizens confined in residential or medical facilities. You and your pet might make a great volunteer therapy team.

Do you ever feel down and out, like the weight of the world is on your shoulders? Do you ever feel like you are not strong enough to withstand the daily routine of life? If so, you?re not alone.

Millions of people are stressed out in this country, both emotionally and physically. However, studies show that those who have pets in their lives are better able to cope with this stress than those who don?t interact with companion animals.

The perpetually stressed aren't the only ones who benefit from a cuddly creature either. Individuals with physical and emotional disabilities can use animals not only to provide love and support, but also to help get through the routine chores of daily life. The elderly can benefit from animals, too.

The creatures who provide these special populations with love and support belong to a unique category of companion animal -- service animals. Service animals, who can play a significant role in the community, generally fall into two subcategories: assistance animals and therapy animals.

Assistance animals -- guide dogs for the visually impaired, hearing dogs for the hearing impaired, and service dogs for the disabled, to name a few -- are specially trained to help humans who have physical or mental disabilities. These animals can be trained to open a door, turn on lights, and even alert the authorities to a medical emergency. They live with their caregivers to offer round-the-clock assistance. Most of these animals attend special classes and have to pass tests to be classified as "assistance animals," and some are specially raised from infancy with trainers or handlers.

Therapy pets are a whole 'nother animal: They're often used in health care, social, educational, and recreational settings. In health care, therapy pets help facilitate physical and psychological sessions with patients of all ages, whether a psychological counseling session in which a patient feels free to speak with an animal in the room, or a round of physical therapy in which the patient is encouraged to groom or walk a pet.

Among older Americans, therapy animals can be used in hospices, nursing homes, hospitals, short-term care facilities, and even residential dwellings to facilitate therapeutic interaction. Therapy animals visit patients, who are encouraged to pet, interact, and play with them. These interactions often result in the improved physical health and mental well-being of the patient.

But the benefits of pet therapy can work both ways. The people who provide pet therapy services often speak about how rewarding it is for them. Even better, pets and people of any age can volunteer in a therapeutic capacity. Some organizations even prefer to provide pet therapy to senior citizens using older pets -- further proof that age doesn't matter when love is involved.

If a caregiver and animal would like to volunteer as a therapy pet team, there are several large groups that offer training and certification programs. However, no single national organization can certify your pet for all types of therapy.

Depending on where a pet will visit, local certifications may be required in place of, or in addition to, a national certification. Many hospitals or other therapy locations will offer their own certification or training classes or will have certain requirements for pet therapy teams to complete prior to volunteering. Individuals should research the types of certification, training, or other requirements needed to determine where their pets would provide the best "fit."

Therapy pets can also be adopted from your local animal shelter or humane society and do not have to be specially bred for the job. Therapy pet teams are generally comprised of pets who don?t have training beyond basic obedience school. In fact, members of the general public are often asked or encouraged to volunteer with their pets as therapy teams by local hospitals, hospices, community centers or religious organizations. Chances are, if your pet has a docile temperament, enjoys being held and petted, is well behaved, responds to commands, and can tolerate an hour or two of lavish attention, you can sign up locally to volunteer as a therapy team.

So if you have a pet who is aching to spread his joy in the community, consider volunteering as a pet therapy team. Not only will you be assisting a special population of citizens who appreciate the help, you will enjoy your volunteer experience as well. And regarding your pet, you may have trouble dragging him away at the end of the session!