Volunteering consistently ranks among the top New Year’s goals, and those resolutions can be much easier to keep if you’ve got a buddy. Someone to share the experience. Someone to hold you accountable. Someone to wag his or her tail at the door when it’s time to go. In Chicago, opportunities to volunteer with your pet stretch from South Side elementary schools to north suburban senior centers.
Tracey Gold knew her attention-loving pit bull mix Ruby and friendly rat terrier Rocky would be a great fit for animal-assisted therapy when she started volunteering with Safe Humane Chicago three years ago. As part of the group’s Lifetime Bonds program, Gold, 37, who lives in Berwyn, brings her dogs to the Illinois Youth Center juvenile detention facility on the Near West Side every Wednesday to work with groups of teenage boys. The teens, who often come from neighborhoods where dog-fighting and other abuse are common, learn proper animal safety and care, and teach Ruby and Rocky basic commands before moving on to socializing dogs from Chicago’s Animal Care and Control during a three-month course.
For years, studies have touted the benefits of interacting with animals—lower blood pressure, diminished stress levels and the release of happy hormone oxytocin, to name a few. In programs like Safe Humane’s, volunteers and staffers say they see the animals’ physical, social and emotional impact in action at each session. Boys who initially were terrified of dogs have told Gold that Ruby’s the reason they’re no longer afraid. Those who’ve come to sessions in a sour mood brighten up as soon as all 50 pounds of her leaps into their laps. One graduate of the program took Ruby through her Canine Good Citizenship exam and went on to volunteer with the program after he’d gotten out of his detention.
“[I’ve seen changes in the boys’] interest level in working with the dogs, their comfort level in interacting with the dogs and then their willingness to step up and show the skills they have learned in the program,” Gold said. “They truly bond with the dogs.”
That bond benefits the work’s non-human participants too—according to Gold, Ruby gets so excited before volunteering trips she follows Gold around and whimpers at the door.
Ruby and Rocky also do their part at elementary schools on the South and West sides, teaching kids about animal safety as part of Safe Humane’s Youth Leaders program.
Focusing on children’s needs is a mission many pet-centric volunteer organizations share. At Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy, dog teams visit children’s medical facilities and 109 classrooms throughout the region, program coordinator Susan Burrows says. Rainbow’s volunteers also serve older students, visiting Northwestern to help studiers de-stress during finals, or Northern Illinois University, where their Red Cross-affiliated Crisis Response Unit’s dogs comforted the campus community in the wake of the 2008 shooting.
“It’s very obvious when you’re working with your dog how much that point in time means to that person interacting with your dog,” Burrows said. “I’ve been a Girl Scout leader and worked in PTAs and done all kinds of volunteering; this is the most rewarding experience that I’ve ever had.”
And it’s not just dogs who can be therapeutic. As one of therapy group Love on a Leash’s only feline volunteers, Kathy Mordini’s Maine coon mix, Max, can’t wait to curl up in young readers’ laps for Paws for a Tale nights at local libraries, Mordini says. The feeling is mutual. When one shy second-grader came to an event hiding behind his mother, seeing Max made all the difference, Mordini said. “[The boy] sprawled out on the floor petting Max and was all excited,” she recalled. “He did a very animated version of ‘Hop on Pop’ that night.”
Programs like Paws for a Tale or Lakeview-based Sit, Stay, Read are meant to instill confidence in young readers by having them read to their canine and feline visitors. According to Sit, Stay, Read volunteer coordinator Lena McCain, a 2013 Loyola University study showed that elementary school students at the low-income public schools the nonprofit serves have shown a 36.4 percent greater gain in fluency compared with peers who did not participate.
“As a kid, it’s terrifying, an adult might subconsciously react without knowing because you stutter over a word,” McCain said. “A dog isn’t going to do that. A dog is just going to stay there with their head on your lap.”
Unlike activities that center only on visitation, certain programs count as goal-directed therapy, in which the pet acts as a tool to advance the participant’s healing or growth. Dogs with Canine Therapy Corps, for instance, fetch balls that physical therapy patients throw to them or learn commands from substance abuse center residents.
“It’s really an issue of motivation,” Canine Therapy Corps operations manager Ann Davidson said. “With the physical rehabilitation program that can be an extremely long and arduous process ... and a lot of times those people might want to give up halfway through and just call it a day, but having the dogs there makes it feel less like work.”
When the teenage boys Tracey Gold, Ruby and Rocky work with complete their Lifetime Bonds program, they go through a graduation ceremony. Gold says sometimes she dreams Ruby’s enthusiasm will spark a lifelong passion for animals in some of these boys, and they’ll become trainers and activists. Or maybe they’ll just take what they’ve learned, and confront a friend who’s mistreating a dog.
“Even if it makes the smallest difference,” Gold says, “it makes a difference.”
How you and your pet can get involved
Think your dog or cat has what it takes to be a therapy animal? Each group has different requirements for its animal ambassadors, but generally looks for dogs and cats that like people, know basic commands and are not easily fazed by unfamiliar situations, noises or smells. There are no breed restrictions, and experts emphasize the need for a variety of animals—a Great Dane might be better able to help a physical therapy patient regain his or her balance, while a miniature poodle may be a less intimidating fit for an elementary school program. “We’re not asking that they be perfectly trained, we just need to know that, one, they’re going to enjoy the program ... and two, that you have a really good relationship with your dog because you’re asking them to do something they don’t normally do, which is sit there for an hour and 15 minutes and have other dogs [around] that they are not allowed to interact with,” Sit, Stay, Read’s Lena McCain said.
Chicago area animal-assisted therapy programs
Most therapy pets in these programs must be at least 1 year old.
Types of programs: Goal-directed work with children’s hospitals, autistic children, abuse victims, substance abusers, physical therapy patients and more
Pets allowed: Dogs only
Certification process: Dogs must pass 14-point obedience and temperament test, have veterinary certificate, attend volunteer orientation
Types of programs: Work with mostly suburban nursing homes, hospitals, libraries and more
Pets allowed: Dogs and cats
Certification process: Dogs must attend Canine Good Citizen class and pass test; be evaluated by trainer; visit 10 therapy sessions, with five of those evaluated by team leader. Cats must have a veterinarian fill out an evaluation form and visit the same therapy facility 10 times, with five of those visits evaluated by team leader.
Types of programs: Work with hospitals, residential facilities, crisis response situations, libraries, dog safety classes and more
Pets allowed: Dogs only
Certification process: Dogs must attend introductory class and pass training and temperament test. Then volunteers must submit application, observe three different types of programs both with and without their dog and work for four to six sessions in an internship. Medical teams require additional training.
Types of programs: Animal safety seminars and courses with incarcerated youth and disadvantaged elementary school children
Pets allowed: Dogs only
Certification process: Dogs must be evaluated by Safe Humane trainers
Types of programs: Reading programs at low-income elementary schools throughout city
Pets allowed: Dogs only
Certification process: Volunteers must attend literacy orientation class, apply and observe for four sessions without their dogs and submit veterinary records. Dogs must then pass obedience and temperament test.
Types of programs: Visits to nursing homes, hospitals and shelters
Pets allowed: Volunteer-owned or the shelter's adoptable cats only
Certification process: Cats must be evaluated by Tree House staff and be able to walk on leash. Volunteers must have access to a car.