These days there is a plethora of fun activities to share with your dog. You can follow the achievement route, participating in competitions to earn awards and titles. You can choose to participate for the sheer fun of learning new things. But when the jumps are taken down, the retrieving dummies put up, the flyball boxes stowed away some people head off on another meaningful mission. They team up with their canine partner to volunteer in animal-assisted therapy.

More than 20 years ago when I registered my first therapy partner nursing homes were the main target. The goal of animal-assisted therapy in a contained environment such as a nursing home is to direct the patient’s focus outside of herself. The dogs provide a sort of social lubricant. Residents love to hear stories about the dogs and they in turn share stories of the pets from their past. For some people, the therapy dog may be the only visitor they have all month.

When the dogs show up the party starts. Staff frequently report that residents continue to discuss the dog visits for days afterwards. The shared experience gives staff and patients opportunities to interact about something unrelated to their health status.

The dogs can also help with rehabilitation goals. Reaching an arm out to pet the dog can be a huge accomplishment for someone recovering from a stroke. The dog’s response to a verbal cue is immeasurably rewarding for the person with a speech impediment. Gripping a brush, throwing a ball, holding a leash are all part of the fun while serving a purpose.