A Meaningful Activity for You and Your Animal Companion

by Susan Dunn, MA, The EQ CoachTM

Whether "you" means you-on-your-own, you and your partner, you and your friend, or you and the kids, the increasing understanding of the healing power of dogs (and other animal companions) offers a unique opportunity for an enriching activity.

While I'll use dogs here, other animal companions have participated in these Visiting and Therapy Programs, such as cats, guinea pigs, birds and rabbits.

Known by various terms, taking your animal companion to a hospial, prison, nursing home, children's shelter, oncology or pediatric ward can be a rewarding experience for everyone.

It gives you and your loved ones a bonding and learning experience, gives your people-loving dog an adventure, and brings great joy and comfort to the people visited.

Visiting a nursing home means giving the residents something to look forward to, and it's easy to make friends around a dog. There's a natural topic of conversation as the dog is busy doing its thing. Whereas simply visiting a rehab center or children's shelter might be a bit awkward, bring your animal companion and everyone feels at home right away.

It's a relief from boring routines to the residents, and a distraction from pain, illness, depression, and homesickness. Caregivers report that residents become more active when a dog comes visiting, and talk about it long afterward. It's a big event to them, and only requires time from you.

A dog can sometimes reach someone who's withdrawn from the world, as letters to pet therapy sites attest. They also have been shown to reduce the blood pressure of people in many different circumstances (apparently always) — healthy college students, a child reading a book alone in a room, and hospitalized elderly. Touching and massaging have been shown to help both the recipient and the giver, as does petting an animal.

Sounds like a wonderful idea doesn't it, for a winter Sunday afternoon? So how do you proceed?

  1. Consider your dog's personality. You already have a good idea how your dog interacts with other animals and people. Good visiting dogs enjoy meeting strangers, actively approaching but in a calm, friendly manner. A fearful or aggressive dog is not a good candidate. An overly enthusiastic greeter can be trained.
  2. Consider your dog's reactions. He must be able to tolerate strange people, noises and surroundings, commotions, and also the other animals that might be visiting as well. He must be able to calm quickly and reliably.
  3. Choose the right venue to suit your dog's personality. A convalescent home, the children's playground at a shelter, a prison, and a psychiatric ward all require slightly different tolerances from the dog. One dog may be sad at the lack of contact in a convalescent home, while another might be over-stimulated by a group of active children.
  4. Start with good obedience training. Check with your vet or in the yellow pages for training opportunities in your community.
  5. Condition your dog to stimulating new environments, building her trust and confidence in you. (If you're taking her there, it's okay.)
  6. Read some books on the subject. There's a list here: www.dog-play.com/books.html (Also see the books listed in the Therapy Dogs section of Canada's Guide to Dogs.)
  7. Join an organization that can help you learn and also direct you to opportunities. The Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc., www.golden-dogs.org/, Therapy Dogs International, Inc., www.tdi-dog.org, and Delta Society, http://www.deltasociety.org/. (Also see the listing organizations in the Therapy Dogs section of Canada's Guide to Dogs.)
  8. Obtain a Canine Good Citizenship Certificate, awarded under guidelines by the American Kennel Club (AKC) and, in Canada, also the HABAC Canadian Canine Good Citizen Test. It involves basic good behavior, following some commands, being able to stay alone briefly, not whine or bark, good grooming, and other things. You can read about it here: http://www.akc.org/events/cgc/index.cfm.(Link corrected)
  9. Once your dog has earned the Canine Good Citizenship Certificate, you can register him or her in the Canine Good Citizen Hall of Fame: http://home.earthlink.net/~dianebassett/dogtraining/CGC_hall_of_fame.html.
  10. Don't be afraid to set this up on an informal basis, from simply going to visit a home-bound neighbor, to calling the volunteer director at the local children's shelter and asking if you can come by. A good volunteer director is adept at working in various volunteer opportunities, and also always looking for enriching, fun and/or educational activities for clients. Your visitation may be highly structured or not, involve one-on-one or group, you may visit residents' rooms or meet in the meeting room, and yours may be the only animal there or one of many.

You can see the various possibilities this can provide for a meaningful family or individual experience. There are both intellectual and emotional learning opportunities. With the right animal companion, you're on your way and someone's going to be very happy to see you!


About the Author:

©Susan Dunn, MA, The EQ Coach, www.susandunn.cc. I offer coaching, distance learning programs, and ebooks around emotional intelligence for your personal and professional development. I train and certify EQ coaches. Get into this field, dubbed "white hot" by the press, now. No residency requirement. Start immediately. Mailto:sdunn@susandunn.cc for free ezine. For daily EQ Tips, send blank email to EQ4U-subscribe@yahoogroups.com