The Power of Pets

Do you have a friendly cat, dog … or llama? Here’s how they can help others in your community.

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By Stacey Freed, photo by Steve Tague

Like many minivan owners, Sherri Tallmon often has passengers in tow. Her passengers, however, are occasionally llamas.

That's because the Thrivent member, owner of Hidden Oaks Llama Ranch in Estacada, Oregon, takes the llamas to area schools to support students and help ease anxiety. For the last five years, she's done so through an animal therapy nonprofit called Pet Partners.

"I'll bring them to schools during finals week to relieve stress," she says. "It's amazing. The kids are full of smiles; they laugh and hug the llamas and take selfies."

Whether you have a llama or a black lab, volunteering with your pet is a great way to bring the calming power of animals to others.

Know the difference

There are several designations for animal volunteers.

There are categories for animal volunteers. They differ in purpose, training, certification and ownership.

  • Therapy animals provide affection and comfort to people, often at hospitals, assisted living facilities and schools. Owners and their pets should complete training before volunteering.
  • Comfort (or crisis response) dogs provide support in a local community but also can be used during active crises or emergency situations nationally. The dogs typically are handled by multiple volunteers. Handlers and dogs receive specialized training.
  • Service dogs are trained to work or perform tasks, and then placed with people who have disabilities. For example, a service dog might support someone who is sight-impaired.
  • Emotional support animals help people with mental health challenges, such as anxiety or depression. Unlike a service dog, these animals are not trained to complete a specific task related to their owner's disability.

The most common, however, is a therapy animal. This is different from an emotional support animal, comfort dog or service dog. With therapy animals, the owner volunteers with their pet to help others in need.

While dogs are the most common, there are many other animals that can make great therapy pets. Mary Margaret Callahan, senior national director of programs for Pet Partners, says her organization also registers cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, mini horses, birds, potbellied pigs, rats, alpacas and, of course, llamas. These animals offer friendship in venues as varied as nursing homes, scenes of natural disasters, schools, hospitals and even funerals.

Right for the job?

Dogs make up 94 percent of Pet Partners' therapy animal teams. While no particular dog breed is best suited for therapy work, your dog "has to be able to pass the obedience test, be good-natured, willing and calm," says Mary Weibel, a Thrivent member from Beverly Hills, Florida. Weibel's standard poodle-Portuguese water dog mix, Meeka, is a therapy dog.

Be aware that even if your pet is calm at home, he or she may be different in public. "Your dog might sit perfectly in your living room, but will he do it in a room full of distractions?" Callahan asks.

To make sure this and other positive attributes of your pet carry over into a more public setting, you both will need to go through some training and get certified.

How to get started

Once you've established strong obedience skills and are confident your pet will enjoy therapy work, the next step is to identify a certification organization in your area. The American Kennel Club, for example, has a list of various therapy dog certification organizations that offer registration, education and assistance.

Callahan recommends finding out if an organization offers handler training, so you can receive guidance in best practices. In addition to training, inquire about continuing education and liability insurance. "Nearly every facility you visit [to volunteer] will want you to have insurance, and reputable therapy animal programs will provide that liability insurance," Callahan says.

"You should feel confident that the [certification] organization can support you and is committed to the safety of people receiving visits as well as you and your animal," she says. For example, Pet Partners offers continuing education on topics ranging from infection prevention to working with clients with dementia.

If you don’t have a place in mind, organizations like Pet Partners can connect you with facilities – nursing homes, schools, even courtrooms – that are interested in having therapy animals. Visits can range from casual meet-and-greets – for example, socializing with your pet at a senior center – to more formal partnerships with a physical therapist, where your animal might be incorporated into a specific treatment plan. Weibel, for instance, makes weekly visits to different locations with Meeka. Regardless of where you go, you and your pet will be sure to touch lives.

Weibel and Meeka spent 12 weeks in training through Nature Coast Therapy Dogs (NCTD) in Homosassa Springs, Florida. NCTD trains both the handler and the animal, Weibel says. She and Meeka practiced socializing with other dogs, going through obstacle courses and getting used to being around equipment like wheelchairs and walkers.

If your pet is a good candidate, using it as a therapy animal can be a rewarding experience. It's not only a way to help others, but it's also an opportunity to meet like-minded volunteers and bond with your pet.

Stacey Freed is an award-winning writer for national trade and consumer publications. She lives in Pittsford, New York.