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Dogs That Give Back

TLC from a four-legged pal can be the ultimate gift. Here's what animal therapy entails -- and how your furry best friend can help.

Martha Stewart Living, December 2011

If you've ever snuggled with a cat or dog when you're sick or just a little down, you know how much better it can make you feel. Animal therapy is just that: tapping into the healing power that pets innately possess. After undergoing special training for an animal and its owner, therapy "teams" visit a variety of settings, where they offer comfort and love to someone in need.

What Therapy Animals Do

While service animals perform tasks that people with disabilities cannot (think guide dogs), many therapy animals serve by merely being present. The most common facilities where teams work are nursing homes, hospitals, hospices, schools, and libraries. The therapeutic benefits these certified animals impart range from entertaining sick children to soothing veterans suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Is Your Pet a Candidate?

"Volunteers recognize a healing quality in their dogs," says Rachel McPherson, author of "Every Dog Has a Gift" and founder of the Good Dog Foundation in New York City. All dogs are eligible, provided the dog has a friendly temperament and can handle curveballs (strangers, new environments, clumsy petting).

How to Get Certified

Training prerequisites vary by group, but basic obedience commands are generally a must. Through a rigorous training process that typically spans months, your dog will acquire specialized skills (such as how to approach a wheelchair). Therapy Dogs International and Delta Society are the largest associations, but smaller ones can be found nationwide.

Find a Facility That Fits

According to Rachel Wright, Delta Society's Pet Partners program manager, one of the most vital steps is pairing the right dog to the right type of service. Evaluations help determine the program or setting that best complements the team's strength. A pet's personality and maturity also dictate where it works: A young, energetic pooch probably isn't a great fit for seniors but might be a perfect match for teens.

Canine-Minded Groups

To enroll in certification training, visit,, or for more information. If you have a rambunctious barker at the end of that leash, then consider donating to one of these worthy organizations instead.

Camp Heart Songs

At this bereavement camp run by Four Seasons hospice care in North Carolina, a therapy dog helps kids ages 6 to 14 who have recently lost a loved one (

K9s for Warriors

This Florida charity finds and trains service dogs for veterans coping with physical and psychological wounds. The veteran-canine team then trains together at the K9s facility until the partnership is deemed a success -- all at no cost to the soldier (

Prison Pet Partnership

Housed on the grounds of a Washington state women's prison in Gig Harbor, this outfit rescues and trains shelter dogs to be service animals for disabled persons. Inmates gain additional vocational skills by operating an adjoining boarding and grooming facility (

Not So Ruff Life

If a child is struggling with learning to read, it can be stressful. Reading to a therapy dog like Kerry from the Good Dog Foundation can help a child relax and build confidence.

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