id you know that April 30th is National Therapy Animal Day? This is a day to recognize and honor through awareness and education the thousands of pets and handlers that work throughout the country to enhance the health and well-being of humans by facilitating the human-animal bond. Many scientific articles credit this connection to better mental, emotional, physical and social health in people including, but not limited to a reduction in pain, an increase in optimism, lower blood pressure and an increase in positive social behaviors.
The most common image one may envision when considering a therapy animal is a service dog that helps an individual with a disability achieve greater independence. However, this image is incorrect. The definition of a service or assistance animal is typically a dog or sometimes a miniature horse trained to do need-specific work for individuals with disabilities such as guide, hear or alert their owner to an impending medical condition such as a seizure. These amazing creatures are considered working animals and the American Disabilities Act (ADA) extends certain rights to service canines including the ability to accompany their owner anywhere in public. Therapy animals are defined differently.
Pet Partners, the first organization to recognize and offer “standardized training in animal-assisted activities and therapy for volunteers and health-care professions,” defines therapy animals as pets handled by volunteers “to provide affection and comfort to various members of the public, typically in facility settings.” Therapy animal volunteers often train their pet and volunteer their time to visit hospitals, schools, nursing homes, libraries and shelters to bring comfort or compassion to those in need. The ability to be a therapy animal is not limited to dogs. Cats, birds, llamas, horses, guinea pigs, and even rabbits can be therapy animals. Unlike service animals, therapy animals do not have the same rights as mandated by the ADA. Their presence is restricted to the rules of the facility.
If you are interested in sharing your pet’s unconditional love with others by becoming a therapy animal volunteer, three useful resources to consult are www.petpartners.org, www.loveonaleash.org, and the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen program. Once certified as a therapy animal, the University of Kentucky Hospital’s Gill Heart Institute, Kentucky’s Children’s Hospital, and Markey Cancer Center, as well as Central Baptist Hospital, offer opportunities to provide animal-assisted therapy to their patients. Visits with individual patients last approximately 15 minutes. If you have an aversion to hospitals, the Versailles Public Library presents a “Kids Read to Dogs” program the second Saturday of the month at 3:00 pm to build literacy confidence in children ages 5 to 11 by reading to a friendly therapy dog. Contact each of these facilities for volunteer requirements and opportunities.