How to Volunteer Your Pet

How would you like to partner with your pet to provide animal therapy at hospitals and nursing homes? Rx: Dog Love, the first visiting-animal program in Ohio, has not only certified dogs, but also cats, llamas, ponies, birds, hamsters, rabbits and pygmy goats as animal therapists.

In most cases, national certification is required for volunteers to bring their animals for therapy to hospitals and nursing homes. Working under the guidelines of the Delta Society, the nation's foremost registry for the practice, Rx: Dog Love administers the Pet Partners Skills and Aptitude tests about 10 times a year.

"We consider both ends of the leash," says Beth Fink, president of Rx: Dog Love. "Sometimes, the handler is all that we need, but the dog is not ready."

Rx: Dog Love's workshop doesn't train animals. Instead, it trains the owners about safety, risk management, infection control and how they and their pets should interact with patients. Certifiers watch how the owner and animal interact in different situations.

"Animals who have been trained in big, noisy obedience schools do better in our experience than those trained at home," Fink says. "In the school, the animal learns to operate and be focused with stimuli around him."

Resistration costs $50. Once the process is complete, the Delta Society insures the volunteer for $1 million in liability. The certification and insurance last for two years. "Delta Society is the only registry that requires reassessment," Fink says.

Volunteering with your animal is much more rewarding than people imagine, says Carmel Oberdorfer, who's been visiting hospitals with her Welsh corgi, Two Socks, for eight years.

"It's very addicting. Everywhere you go, you can only bring smiles," says Oberdorfer, a Spanish teacher. "You can only make [a patient's] situation better."

Two Socks, placid and easygoing, loves going to the hospital. "We have to bathe him in the 24 hours before, and he associates the bath with going to visit. He just jumps in the tub, tail wagging."

It takes effort to keep a pet's obedience skills sharp enough to volunteer, Oberdorfer notes, "but it's worth every moment."

The Western Reserve Kennel Club is holding an informational seminar with Rx: Dog Love on June 4. Call Wendy Hess, (330) 666-1944, for information.

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