Therapy dogs: how to volunteer with your dog

Lorna Cowan / 12 October 2015 ( 19 January 2017 )

Find out how therapy dogs can help people in schools, hospitals and care homes, and how you and your dog can volunteer.



Got a bit more spare time on your hands now that you’re retired, and thinking of doing some volunteering work? If you’re a dog owner, your four-legged friend could get involved too. You know how much joy your pet gives you, so why not let them give comfort and companionship to others, as a Pets As Therapy dog.

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How Pets As Therapy works

Pets As Therapy, a national charity founded in 1983, relies on its many volunteers who, along with their well-behaved dogs, make regular visits to nursing homes, hospitals, hospices and day care centres. The volunteers spend time with patients, residents or visitors, allowing them to stroke the PAT Dog and enjoy some companionship.

All Pets As Therapy volunteers need to provide references, and the dogs go through a strict assessment to make sure they are suitable. Dogs must be healthy and happy to be fussed over. But they can’t get too excited and bark, jump up or paw people – hygiene and safety is paramount, and some frail patients may have paper-thin skin.

The benefits of therapy dogs

For dog lovers who no longer live in their own home, or elderly people who attend day care centres but are unable to own a pet, interacting with a PAT Dog can bring great comfort and joy. Patting a dog, and seeing it respond, gives people a little extra boost in addition to medical and nursing care.

Sick or withdrawn patients can perk up when they have a visit from a four-legged friend. And even those who say they’re not fond of dogs have been known to raise a smile when they see a happy face and wagging tail.

The very special brand of care, companionship and therapy that Pets As Therapy provides is being increasingly recognised by the medical profession. Volunteers are being asked to assist with stroke rehabilitation work, and help people with phobias or mental health issues. Many schools are also now inviting Pets As Therapy dogs to spend time in the classroom and help children with reading difficulties.

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Volunteering your dog as a Pet Therapy dog

What kind of dog can become a Pets As Therapy dog?

There are around 4,500 Pets As Therapy dogs (and just over 100 PAT cats) visiting hospitals, residential nursing homes, day care centres, hospices and special needs schools in the UK. And these special dogs come in all shapes and sizes. 

All that is required is that the dog is at least nine months old, is fit and healthy, enjoys the company of others, and you’ve owned your pet for over six months. Your dog will also need to pass a Pets As Therapy assessment to check that it has the right temperament.

How can dogs help others?

Sick and withdrawn patients in hospitals and hospices often open up and let barriers down when a Pets As Therapy dog is around. And those in nursing homes and day care centres, perhaps pet lovers who are no longer able to have a dog of their own, enjoy fussing over a friendly four-legged visitor. 

Pets As Therapy has also launched a READ 2 DOGS programme, helping children who are reluctant readers to enjoy books.

What will the assessment involve?

During the assessment, carried out by a Pets As Therapy accredited assessor or vet, you will need to be able to show that your dog is friendly and well-behaved, responds to your commands, and walks on a relaxed lead. 

Dogs that continuously bark, get too excited or jump up and paw people may not be suitable. It needs to be comfortable in different environments, respond calmly to sudden noises, and not get anxious if stroked or patted vigorously.

How much time do I need to commit?

Pets As Therapy do their best to match up volunteers with an establishment that is close to their home, so it’ll be convenient and easy to travel to. But it’s nice to build up a rapport with patients and visit on a regular basis. An hour’s visit is about right. 

Don’t underestimate how hard your dog is working. They may be wagging their tail and enjoying being fussed over, but don’t let them get too hot or tired. Younger dogs may quickly lose attention, and older dogs may just want to go home to have a lie-down.

What else do I need to consider?

If you’re interested in becoming a Pets As Therapy volunteer, along with your dog, you can find out more by calling 01494 569130. Or go online to www.petsastherapy.org and complete the relevant application form. 

And remember, it’s not just your pet who is being assessed, you are too, so you’ll also need to give the names of two people who can give you a reference. To help with charity costs, volunteers are asked to pay an annual subscription of £19. For those living in Scotland, find out about becoming a Therapet volunteer at www.canineconcernscotland.org.uk.

How to arrange a Pets As Therapy visit to a hospital or residential home

More information about Pets As Therapy can be found online at www.petsastherapy.org. All you need to do is to get the nursing home or hospital to contact the Placement Officer, who will find out a bit more about the establishment, its needs and will be able to tell them if there is a volunteer in your area who is able to visit. Alternatively, an authoritative member of staff can fill in the online visit request form.

If there is not a volunteer in your area, you could always try to find one. Put up posters in local shops or in the vet surgery, or perhaps ask for volunteers and spread the word via a community Facebook page.

Pets As Therapy are unable to arrange visits to individuals in their own private houses for reasons of safety, security and insurance. However, if your parent regularly visits a day care centre, you could ask staff there to contact the charity.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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