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6 Ways to Volunteer with your Dog

Deepen the bond with your pet while making a difference in our community

BY REBEKAH OLSEN
Originally published in our Feb/Mar 2015 issue

Looking for a way to step up your bonding with your pooch pal? Want to make a positive difference in your community? 

We’ve dug up six pawtastic ways that you and your pooch pal can volunteer together in the Nashville area. With so many worthy options, there is sure to be one that is the right fit for you.

Note: Some of these may involve pre-planning (check out our side bar on certifying your pet as a therapy animal to get started), but the extra effort will be worth it in the end!

Improve Literacy with READing Paws

READing Paws is a nonprofit program that aims to improve the literacy of children. An affiliate of the national R.E.A.D. program (Reading Education Assistance Dogs), READing Paws was founded in Nashville but has since grown to include the state of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, parts of Florida and even Nevada.

Instead of pencils and paper, READing Paws uses paws and tails to tutor their students. A READing Paws team is comprised of a registered therapy animal (dog, cat or even a bunny) and their handler­­, which is you. You can catch these teams at a local school, library or bookstore, tucked into a corner reading good ol’ fashioned books with kids.

“You’re sitting down on a blanket in a real quiet setting... it’s a really good program for elderly dogs that just want to sit quietly and listen,” says Merilee Kelly, Chairman of READing Paws.

According to a study by the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, third-graders who read to therapy dogs once a week for ten weeks improved their reading fluency by twelve percent.

“The attention is gone and the anxiety is gone because it’s so nonjudgmental,” Kelly says. She adds that children who participate in the program build coping mechanisms to deal with fears of reading in front of large groups. “The kids will tell us that they pictured everybody in the class with dog heads,” she laughs.

To become a READing Paws Team, it’s recommended to enroll your pup into a basic obedience class or AKC Good Canine Citizen Class. This will give them a paw up when you register and certify your pet as a therapy animal with Intermountain Therapy Animals at therapyanimals.org. Once your pet is certified, handlers may then attend an all day READing Paws training course to learn best practices for developing literacy skills in children.

Volunteer at a Hospital with Vanderbilt Pet Teams

If your dog isn’t much of a bookworm, consider volunteering at a local hospital, children’s hospital or nursing home with Vanderbilt Pet Teams. Dogs offer patients something medicine and even the best of nurses can’t provide: a furry coat and a wagging tail.

The mere presence of a therapy animal has shown to lower a patient’s blood pressure and heart rate, relieve anxiety and, of course, bring a smile to their face. (I dare you not to smile when you see a dog happily trotting around on the squeaky, clean floors of a hospital.)

“It’s very rewarding how such a short visit can make someone so happy,” says Cynthia Warner, Administrative Assistant with Volunteer Services at Vanderbilt Medical Center.

Vanderbilt Pet Teams are assigned approved areas of the hospital, and for two hours once a week or biweekly they visit patients who want to spend time with a furry friend. Volunteers are required to first certify their pet through Therapy ARC (Delta Society) before attending hospital volunteer training. For health reasons, pets must also be properly groomed before visiting patients.

“We need [volunteers]. We don’t have a lot of them… It provides such a benefit,” says Warner.

Go For a Run with Metro Animal Care and Control Pack

If you need motivation to get out and exercise (or if maybe you’re a runner already) then joining the MACC Pack will be right for you. Launced in 2013, the volunteer-led program mission is to encourage volunteers to participate in coordinated walks, runs and races across Davidson County to promote adoptable dogs that are available at Metro Nashville Animal Care and Control (MACC).

Their first event was at the Mayor’s 5k in 2013. “All the animals that were part of [the Mayor’s 5k] were adopted through that process. It was a great way to learn about the shelter in a really positive way,” says MACC staff member Rebecca Morris.

Best of all, participation is easy! All you have to do is join the Facebook group, stay up-to-date with the events and take your dog on a run. If you’re interested in walking/running one of the adoptable dogs, you’ll need to attend a short orientation course.

The MACC Pack also meets two Saturdays a month at the shelter to play with and socialize adoptable pets, and will be participating in one or two local 5k runs this year.

Foster a Rescued Pet

If your pup is feeling particularly lonely and bored, consider fostering a dog through a local rescue group or shelter. Not only is fostering a great way to test the waters with having another pet in the household, but it’s a gratifying experience for yourself and a great way to socialize and exercise both your dog and the adoptable dog.

MACC recently started its own foster program for the first time. “It’s a unique foster program,” says Morris. “We are focusing on the animals that are more vulnerable in the shelter environment: puppies, kittens and pregnant or nursing dogs or cats. We’ve had tremendous success so far.”

Fostering a pet helps them socialize with people and other animals, teaches them basic obedience and introduces them to life in a home—all things they would miss living inside the shelter. When you take a rescue into your home, you also free up a spot in the shelter for more pets to be rescued.

Commitment is temporary and once you have filled out an application and completed an interview, MACC also offers a foster training session. “We want to set [our volunteers] up for success and set the animal up for success,” says Morris.

Or, to help another rescue group in need, visit the listing of local animal rescues in our directory here.

Schedule a Doggie Play Date with a Local Rescue Group

Fostering a rescue pet is a bigger commitment, and it’s understandable that not everyone is equipped with the skills or time necessary to do this, but one great solution is to contact a local rescue group and schedule a play-date with one of their rescues.

“A lot of the dogs we have rescued are from puppy mill situations and abuse situations, and they need to be socialized outside their foster parents… it’s part of their rehab process,” says Tanya Willis, Co-Founder of Agape Animal Rescue.

Contact Agape and they’ll pair you with a nearby foster who has a pup that needs a little extra attention. You can take them on a run, to the dog park or just to your house to play.

“If your dog is otherwise going to be at home sleeping on the couch, then there’s benefit for them getting outside and exercising [with our rescues]”, adds Willis.

Even if you don’t have your own dog, you can still help out by taking a rescue on a run or walk. Says Willis, “If we have a super energetic dog that needs a high level of exercise but the foster parent may work all day, that [volunteer] can pick them up and take them on a two to three mile run. We’ve even had someone take one of our dogs on a marathon!”

Socialization with other dogs and pet guardians helps lower anxiety and destructive behavior in both the rescued dog and your own pet. Willis also adds that dogs can teach each other new tricks. If a dog is struggling with commands, pairing them with a dog that is confident in obedience can help them follow cues.

Take Your Dog to Work Day

If you need an extra paw around the office, this is a great way to shake up your dog’s schedule while also supporting local rescue groups. Pet Sitter’s International (PSI), the world’s largest educational association for professional pet sitters, created “Take Your Dog to Work Day” in 1999 with the mission to celebrate pet companionship and promote pet adoptions.

“PSI believes that through this event, people without dogs can see the loving bond their co-workers have with their pets, and be encouraged to adopt a new best friend of their own,” says Beth Stultz, Marketing and Communications Manager of PSI.

Employers are encouraged to allow staff to bring their pet to work and then to invite a local shelter or rescue group to bring their adoptable pets to the place of business.

Now, you may be thinking: How can I convince my boss to do this?

Visit takeyourdog.com and download the TYDTW Day Action Pack, which provides tips, advice and a strategic plan on how to safely and successfully implement this celebration at your company. The website also has great ideas to take the day even further with fundraisers, pet fairs, adopt-a-thons and photo sessions.

“One [national housing] company, Village Green, has now raised more than $50,000 for local pet organizations through their Take Your Dog to Work Day events,” Stultz says. 

You can market this event to your employer as a way to increase exposure for your company as well as giving back. If your employer isn’t on board with allowing dogs into the workplace, you can still celebrate by hosting pet photo contests, organizing a fundraiser or inviting a pet health professional or rescue group to speak to the staff.

While the 2015 TYDTW Day isn’t until Friday, June 26, now is the perfect time to start doing your homework!

BONUS INFO! 
How to Certify Your Pet as a Therapy Animal

Many pet volunteer programs require that your pet be certified as a therapy animal before participation. Use these tips provided by Pet Partners to get started.

Select a therapy certification program, such as Therapy ARC, a Pet Partners Affiliate in Davidson County. Keep in mind that some volunteer programs require that you use a specific company for this. Info at therapyarc.org.
 
Research the prerequisites your pet must meet in order to be certified. For example, therapy pets must be house-trained, healthy and understand basic obedience.

Once you’ve established that your pet is a good candidate, register for an in-person handler course to train your end of the leash. If there’s not a handler course in your area, some companies offer an online option.

~ Visit your veterinarian for an Animal Health Screening.

~ Schedule a team evaluation where you’ll complete a role-play of a therapeutic visit in the community.

~ Once you’ve received your acceptance letter, you can begin scheduling your volunteer visits!

Rebekah Olsen lives in Southaven, Mississippi with her husband, Matt and their Cane Corso Midas. She is a freelance writer, small business owner and dog enthusiast and a regular contributor to Nashville Paw. Visit her blog at TheRebarkableBlog.com.

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