Assisted Animal Therapy (AAT), also known as pet therapy, is the use of certified cats and dogs as volunteers for the disabled, elderly, or frail and is often used in hospice as part of a comprehensive volunteer program. Pet therapy has been shown to increase pain tolerance, reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and bring smiles to patient's faces. It can be especially useful in the hospice setting for patients who have withdrawn from the people around them but find interacting with an animal easier and less painful.
Hospice patients often turn inward and withdraw from loved ones and the world around them as a way to ease the transition towards death. Talking to loved ones might become difficult and painful but interacting with a friendly animal is easy and offers a temporary reprieve.
If you are considering volunteering your pet to visit with hospice patients, there are some things you need to consider before starting.
Consider Your Pet's Temperament
A pet therapy animal should have calm temperament and be able to tolerate sudden loud noises and groping hands. The animal should be accepting of friendly strangers and be able to sit calmly to be pet. It should be equally friendly towards other animals and show no aggression. The animal should be confident and consistently obey commands.
Overly excitable animals do not make good hospice volunteers. Hospice patients need a pet volunteer who is calm and exudes peace and love. Older pets typically make the best hospice volunteers but a well-trained puppy might work as well.
Think Your Pet's Got What it Takes? Get Certified!
If your pet has the right temperament and is well-trained, the next step is to get your pet certified. Not all pet therapy animals require certification but I believe all hospice volunteer animals should be. Certification shows that you care enough about patients to ensure your animal is the best it can be.
Some hospice agencies provide pet therapy training and certification. Check with the hospice agency you've decided to volunteer for to inquire about their pet therapy program. (For tips on choosing a hospice agency to volunteer for, see "How to Be a Hospice Volunteer"). If the hospice agency doesn't provide training and certification, you'll need to pursue it on your own.
The American Kennel Club developed the Canine Good Citizen Test in 1989 to evaluate and certify a canine's well-mannered behavior. The test consists of ten parts designed to evaluate a dogs ability to obey commands and his over-all temperament. There are several clubs and organizations that support testing and certification. You can contact any of the listed organizations below to inquire about certification.