Volunteering With Your Animal

How to Start?

If you feel that you and your pet may be interested in becoming a volunteer visiting team with Huntsville Pets Helping People, the first step is for you to thoroughly read this the following information about the requirements and process to qualify for this very unique kind of volunteering.  Once you have read and considered this information, make a list of your questions and contact us to set up a personal interview.  We would like to meet you and your pet to discuss the training and time commitments, answer all your questions about the process, and help you determine whether this is the kind of volunteer that you and your animal will enjoy before you invest time and money to become trained and registered therapy animal team.

An interview is required before you may register for a workshop and team screening/ evaluation.  The interview is by appointment only and will take about half an hour.  The workshops and screenings are offered only a limited number of times each year, generally quarterly, Please consider the schedule for your area and call to schedule your appointment.

Huntsville (HPHP)           Marilyn Meshell         936 294-9564   blue25corgi@yahoo.com

Pets With A Mission (PWAM)    Jeanice Hall  410 200-1227  jeanicehalll@yahoo.com

If you are accepted into the program, you will be invited register for the basic training workshop (only for humans) to be followed by a handler-animal team evaluation.


Schedule and Costs

Participating in animal-assisted therapy with your partner animal is a volunteer service with great potential satisfaction and reward, but it is not a casual undertaking and is not suitable for everyone.  It is a serious responsibility that involves health, safety, and extremes of emotion and behavior.  Volunteers need to be able to deal appropriately with patients/clients during the most difficult and challenging times in their lives.  As such, it requires an initial investment and then ongoing education, mentoring, training, and commitment.

The Basic Workshop costs $75.

Team Screening/Evaluation for you and your animal partner, costs $25.

Joining HPHP, including team liability insurance, costs $75.


Note: If you will be affiliated with Pets With A Mission, you will be required to join PWAM instead of HPHP.  Check with PWAM for their membership costs.


The Basic Team Training Workshop will provide important information such as:

  • How you and your animal companion can test and register as a volunteer team
  • The difference between animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and animal-assisted activities (AAA) and how to conduct both of them
  • How to recognize the signs of stress in your animal partner
  • How to prepare your animal partner for a AAA/AAT visit
  • The appropriate terminology and conversational approaches for various clients
  • How to identify situations where animal visits are not appropriate
  • Common concerns of health care and human services professionals about AAA/AAT and how to address them
  • How to get started in various kinds of facilities


Team Screening /Evaluation for Your and Your Animal – Screening of handler-animal teams is done by a licensed ITA (Intermountain Therapy Animal) Team Evaluator.  Individual appointments will be scheduled for you and your animal as a team.  The screening will evaluate your team skills and your aptitude for a visiting animal program.


What Makes a Person and Animal Suitable to be a Volunteer Therapy Team?

Important:  (1) Please note that your dog must be at least 18 months old to qualify for screening.  Cats must be at least 12 months old.  Pocket pets like guinea pigs must be six months old.  (2) You must have known the animal for a minimum of six months before you can evaluate to be a Volunteer Therapy Team.

We look for very specific qualities in the people and their companion animals who will qualify as volunteer therapy teams.  Pet Owners who are considering this kind of service should read the following with great care and consideration because, while this manner of volunteering can be extremely valuable and rewarding, it is not enjoyable or appropriate for every person or every pet.


What Qualities Does a Person Have to Demonstrate to Be Part of a Successful Team?

      Providing animal assisted therapy is a human health and social service.  It is not a sport or competition, and being a therapy animal is not a title to accrue.  As such, your role in the process is extremely important.  It is not a simple, casual, or stress-free kind of volunteering; many liken it to a paraprofessional, and you will often be “alone” (meaning no group of HPHP colleagues together, all doing similar things at the same time) with patients or residents.  You will need to be brave, steady, direct, confident, emotionally mature, and flexible, among other qualities.

  • We look for people who demonstrate good social skills, who can smile and relax and relate comfortably with their animal partner and with other people. And you need to be at least 10 years old.
  • We look for things that will be pertinent when you do AAA/AAT visits – such as, are you on time? Did you carefully read the materials you received?  Did you come to the evaluation properly prepared?  Are you willing to ask questions when you don’t understand something?  Do you listen well?  Follow instructions?
  • We also observe your relationship with your animal – how well do you know this animal, its personality and its needs? How does the animal feel about you – does it respond to your commands?  How do you make corrections (tone, style, etc.)?

You need to consider your willingness, ability, and comfort level relating to the following:

  • Do you truly enjoy making conversation with strangers, extending yourself in often difficult moments?
  • Will you be comfortable saying NO when a therapist or patient/client asks you to do something that you know will not be safe or comfortable for your animal?
  • Will you be comfortable with the often unpleasant situations surrounding various therapies – strong body odors, people in pain, people demonstrating angry or unpredictable behaviors?
  • Will you be willing to invest your time to learn about the various patient populations you will be working with, such as adults with Alzheimer’s, children with autism, people dealing with mental illnesses or profound physical damage?
  • Do your life circumstances permit you to be committed to this volunteering? It cannot be slap-dash, occasional, or casual, because patients will be depending on you and your animal.


What Kinds of Animals Will Qualify?

Besides dogs and cats, there are a great many other domesticated species that make wonderful visiting animals and can form strong human-animal bonds.  To name a few:  birds, rabbits, goats, domestic rats, hamsters, guinea pigs, ducks, chickens, miniature pigs, llamas, cows, and horses.  At this time, HPHP specializes in animals that are easily “portable” for taking into healthcare institutions.  Animals such as snakes, ferrets, lizards and wild or exotic animals are not accepted.  This is because wild or exotic animals are not legally acceptable as pets in many states, and without more research documenting their behavior predictability over time; we cannot accurately evaluate their behavior and reaction to stress.  Finally, we do not accept dogs that have had any training in bite work (for sport or protection) as therapy animals.  Please ask us for more information if this is an issue that affects you and your dog.


What Makes an Animal Appropriate?

Animals should have excellent training so that they are reliable and under control even in crowded situations and when there are loud noises.  For dogs, a basic obedience training is a must.  Potential therapy animals must be calm, well-behaved, and have excellent manners.  It is important that animals who participate in AAA/AAT are people-oriented and enjoy visiting so that they will be happy volunteering with you.

Read the following checklist carefully for details about what makes an animal appropriate for AAA/AAT:

  • Animal demonstrates behavior that is reliable, controllable, predictable, and INSPIRES CONFIDENCE in the person s/he is interacting with
  • Animal actively solicits interactions with people and is accepting and forgiving of differences in people’s reactions and behavior
  • Animal demonstrates relaxed body posture, moments of sustained eye contact (dependent upon species and breed), and relaxed facial expressions
  • Animal is more people-oriented than animal-oriented
  • Animal enjoys being petted, touched, and hugged
  • Animal is able to remain calm with people doing such things as speaking loudly, moving clumsily, and clapping
  • When approached from the rear, the animal may show curiosity, but does not startle, growl, jump up, bark, eliminate, act shy or resentful
  • The animal can walk on various surfaces reasonably comfortably, including, carpet, concrete or asphalt, tile, linoleum, rubber matting and wooden floors
  • Animal is outgoing, friendly, and confident in new settings


What Kinds of Animals Definitely WILL NOT Qualify?

  • Any pet that is too energetic and rambunctious, or aggressive to people or other animals, will not pass evaluation. Growling, snapping, lunging, extended barking, raising hackles, or showing teeth will disqualify a dog.  Sometimes we meet owners who tell us, when their dog starts to growl, that “he’s just talking,” or “that’s just her way of saying hello.”  Even if that is true, it doesn’t work to have an animal in a school or hospital setting, with people who are sick and perhaps frightened or even tentative about meeting a dog, recoil at meeting a growly dog.  Again, any dog trained in bite work, whether for sport or protection, is not eligible to be tested.
  • If your pet is in poor health, it would not be safe for the animal or the people s/he meets to be exposed. We visit in situations where clients are medically fragile so therapy animals must be picture-perfect in both health and grooming.  Animals that are dusty, greasy, or stinky do not appeal to clients and may be unhealthy for some that we visit.
  • If your animal is unpredictable (sweet one moment, aggressive the next) or doesn’t like being around people (shy, backs away, gets nervous, quivers, etc.) it would not be suitable for therapy work.
  • We do not accept any dogs who are wolf hybrids, even though they may be wonderful companions; again, because they can be unpredictable.
  • It is very important for your pet to live like a member of your family. Dogs that spend most of their lives outdoors, especially if they sleep outside and/or are kept chained most of the time, do not make good therapy animals.  Dogs who are calm, well behaved, well socialized members of their household are most successful as therapy dogs.

IMPORTANT:  Throughout the test/evaluation, you must be supportive and encouraging to your dog, and interactive with your dog and the “patient.”  For you, the entire test is role-play.


Essentials:  You must pass all these skill-test items to qualify:

  • Your animal must be accepting of a friendly stranger and be willing to sit politely for petting.
  • Animal must be clean, healthy, and well-groomed.
  • Your dog must be willing to go “out for a walk” with you on a loose lead – no pulling or dragging! Then both of you must walk through a crowd, also on a loose leash, and be subjected to visual and noise distractions, without your dog panicking, becoming aggressive, frightened, or too submissive.
  • Basic Obedience: your dog will have to do a sit, down, a stay in place, and come when called.  Your dog must be able to meet a neutral dog with perfect manners (not approaching without your permission).  Your dog needs a “leave it” command.
  • Your dog must not object to a thorough, all-over handling by a stranger (fingers in mouth, on tail, feet, etc.) or to accepting a restraining hug.


Aptitudes:   Generally, these items relate to people, equipment, and situations that you and your animal may encounter while on therapy visits:

  • A staggering, gesturing individual
  • Angry yelling going on nearby
  • Crowded petting by several people at the same time
  • Exposure to a person moaning in pain, in unusual headgear, using a walker, etc.
  • Ability to ignore a treat and toy at your request
  • Ability/willingness for the animal to take a treat gently
  • Ability/willingness for the animal to stay, for two or three minutes, with a stranger while you leave the room

The evaluation tests for overall sociability and carefully observes how much you and your dog are enjoying this sort of activity.  We do not advocate forcing our companion animals to participate in therapy situations if they do not truly enjoy it.  These test items are designed primarily for dogs.  If you have another kind of animal, there will be some variation in the procedures to accommodate species differences.  If you have questions or concerns after reading this information, please contact us to obtain more detailed information.


Some Things to Consider About the Human Expectations Placed on Therapy Dogs

As you think about undertaking volunteer work with your pet partner, please consider the following quotes from a book by Kris Butler, Therapy Dogs Today, Their gifts, Our Obligation.  Ms Butler has a extensive experience with animal assisted therapy.  We urge you to read them carefully and consider how your dog may “fit into this picture” as a volunteering team.

“Nothing else dogs do compares to the kinds of intrinsically stressful social interaction that takes place when they visit clinical, educational, or post-trauma situations.  No other canine-related events, no sport or competition, requires a dog to enter the intimate zones of unfamiliar humans and remain there for several minutes of petting and hugging.”

“Brief interactions with judges in show rings do not compare to the prolonged and repeated contact that takes place during animal-enhanced programs.  Search-and-rescue dogs often work in chaotic environments, but not with prolonged contact with unfamiliar people.  Service dogs work beautifully in public settings, but the public is actively discouraged from touching, petting and distracting them.  Humans have developed a role for visiting dogs like no other in existence.  The role is new, specific and profound.”

“Most dogs have been bred for generations to distinguish between outsiders and family, and to act accordingly.  There has never been a breed of dog designed to enjoy encroachment from strangers.  Dogs who actually enjoy interactions in clinical and educational settings are very rare, and the uniqueness of their talent should be appreciated.” (p. 31)

“Dogs who are comfortable and enjoy unfamiliar people will remain engaged with their assessors and will offer at least some eye contact.” “Conversely, dogs who are not willing to initiate contact or remain engaged with their assessors probably do not want to be touched and petted by unfamiliar people.” (p. 44)

“For dogs, the effects of real human emotion, the stress of having large numbers of unfamiliar humans grabbing and hugging them, contact with toxic surfaces, and overcoming sensory stimuli are not simple training issues.  These are humane issues.  “Certainly, dogs can be trained to persevere in spite of distractions and sensory bombardment.  Sadly, these conditioning processes inadvertently teaches these dogs not to use calming signals, and less savvy handlers and evaluators mistake the lack of signaling for ‘being comfortable with’ ….Just because some dogs are willing to tolerate overwhelming environments does not mean people have license to exploit their visiting partners.  Some environments impose too much upon dogs.”  (p. 59-60)  “Humans have a history of using natural resources indiscriminately, then feeling sorry afterward.” (p. 82)


Trainer Patricia McConnell on Therapy Dogs on January 19, 2012 on her blog at


Therapy Dogs – Born or Made?

      As many of you know, I presented a seminar on animal assisted therapy in Naples, Florida.: One of the motivations for doing the seminar was the number of clients I had who wanted me to help them prepare their dog for therapy work.  Sometimes, it is like swimming downstream on a warm, cozy river.  Their dog was a perfect fit and ended up doing wonderful work in the community.  Other times… well, it was reminiscent of trying to paddle up a cold, frothy waterfall.  The fact is, therapy work can be hard work, and it takes a special kind of dog to be both good at it and to enjoy it.  The directors of AAA and AAT will tell you that one of their greatest challenges is working with people who want to volunteer but whose dogs just don’t qualify.  Here’s a summary of the characteristics of a good therapy dog prospect, in hopes it will be helpful for those who are interested in doing this wonderful work:

Affinity:  This seems like a no brainer, but the fact is that many dogs are presented for therapy work who really doesn’t like strangers that much.  They love their owners and good friends, but aren’t all that interested in other people.  Good therapy dogs need to be the kind of dogs who ADORE people, all people, and want nothing more than to connect with them.  It is, after all, the emotional connection that is often the therapeutic part of AAA and AAT.  It seems to me that dogs sort into four categories:

  • adore people, care little for other dogs
  • adore dogs, care little for unfamiliar people
  • adore members of both species and are thrilled to meet new ones, and
  • adore neither dogs or people, except maybe their owner.

Needless to say, only categories 1 and 3 are good therapy prospects.


Physically Calm:  Many of the dogs who think all people hung the moon regrettably don’t fit into this category.  Leaping, licking, pawing and body slamming just don’t work in senior centers and hospitals, This is why so many dogs don’t qualify when they are young, but could be great prospects when they are older. I wrote a chapter with Audrey Fine for his great book The Handbook of Animal Assisted Therapy, and we had a long discussion about how many dogs would be GREAT for therapy work when they are six, or eight, or ten, but their owners get them evaluated at age two, the dogs are not “passed” and their owners never try again.


Psychologically Sound and Non-Reactive:  It doesn’t matter how much training or conditioning you do, therapy dogs need a certain level of rock solid soundness to be good prospects.  Of course, the context does matter:  some dogs are great in senior centers but are uncomfortable around children and would be disasters in a children’s hospital. It is important to remember that AAA and AAT include a vast range of experiences, so every dog must be evaluated based on what they are going to be doing.  But it’s still essential to keep in mind that although your job is in part to protect your dog, once you are inside a facility you will have limited control over what happens.  And what can happen (someone grabbing your dog, weird noisy medical equipment coming on, a medical crisis that results in tremendous chaos) is sometimes enough to terrify a sensitive dog.  Included in this category, although albeit somewhat different conceptually, is the state of being “emotionally mature” or able to handle frustration and deal with the world with a calm, measured demeanor.  Again, just as in people, sometimes this takes several years to master.


Ridiculously Clean and Healthy:  Unless you work in health care facilities it is easy to forget how differently sanitation needs to be handled in facilities and hospitals than it does in your own home.  Pet Pals here in Madison, which organizes visits to the Children’s Hospital through the UW Vet School, requires that all dogs in the program go through extensive veterinary evaluations twice a year.  This includes an entire day of testing for a vast range of diseases, from salmonella to MRSA.  In this case the dogs are visiting children who are often immune compromised, and so their requirements are more stringent than some, but any facility, from a senior center to a hospital, is a very, very different place than your home.  Germs love the kinds of places that therapy dogs go to visit, and they can move around like wild-fire within very vulnerable populations.


Aware of Their Job?  This is gravy, pure gravy, but the fact is that some dogs do more than happily sit with strangers or participate in structured therapy treatment plans, as beneficial as they can be to some people.  These dogs seem to sense why they are there, and seek out people who are especially needy, and make an emotional connection with them that changes their life.  These connections happen, and hearing about them is enough to make you all gooey-eyed.  This is special stuff indeed.


Thank you for your interest in animal assisted therapy.  AAA and AAT is an idea whose time has come, and if you and your companion animal decide to join us in doing this work, you will have much