By Gina Landino

There aren’t many volunteer activities that allow you to include your own dog, but the Seattle Animal Shelter’s Pet Therapy Program is a wonderful exception, one I’m proud to have personally participated in. As part of the program, volunteers take their dogs to five Seattle-area assisted living facilities and nursing homes to visit with the residents and provide companionship. Program volunteers hope to brighten the lives of these elderly residents through the shared love of animals.

The Pet Therapy team dogs are volunteers’ own companion animals, and have been tested by SAS staff to make sure they’re qualified for the job. Testing focuses specifically on situations and activities that the dog may encounter in a nursing home, including how the dog reacts to wheelchairs, carts, falling objects, folks in uniform, and other dogs. The test also makes sure the dog knows basic commands such as sit and down, and that the dog has good manners and doesn’t jump on others—no one wants an overexcited dog to cause a resident to fall. Lastly, it gives Shelter staff an opportunity to ensure the handler and dog are a good team and that the handler can maintain control of the dog at all times.

Bonnie_TuckerThe dog is not the only one who must be comfortable in nursing homes. The human counterpart must be a good listener, social, and comfortable around elderly people who have a varying range of communication abilities and health issues. This part is easy—who doesn’t love to hear stories and talk with folks who are there to spend time with you and your pup?

Each of the five nursing home locations has a set time when the SAS Pet Therapy Team is welcome to visit. This allows volunteers to really get to know their fellow Pet Therapy teams and the residents alike. Volunteers are welcome to visit one nursing home per month, or as many as all five if they choose.

Many of the residents come to the visiting area just to see the dogs. They comment, ask questions about the dog’s age and breed, and of course share many “awws.” Many are excited to pet the dogs; others are nervous at first, but because these dogs are approved by the Shelter, residents often become more comfortable around them. Residents might offer treats for the dogs or watch television with them. My dog Chance, for example, would sometimes lay across a resident’s feet while they watched the Seahawks game.

The presence of the dogs often sparks conversations and gives everyone a common ground to start talking. Those initial conversations lead to other topics, as well as smiles and laughter, that otherwise might not happen.

Research has shown the positive effects that animals have on human emotion, illnesses and stress levels. Being part of the Pet Therapy team is an amazing opportunity to bring happiness and companionship to those who may not always have that in their lives. If you believe your dog is a great candidate, you can submit an application to the SAS Pet Therapy team here.


This story is just one of many that demonstrate the impact of the Seattle Animal Shelter. You can help us deepen that impact: Please consider donating to SASF today.

Top photo: SAS Pet Therapy dogs (clockwise from bottom) Kensy, Gus, Neil and Ginger at Queen Anne Healthcare. Gus visited every nursing home in the program each month before passing away from Leukemia in December 2013. (Photo courtesy Tracy Wallschlaeger)

Bottom photo: SAS Pet Therapy program dog Tucker charms Queen Anne Healthcare resident Bonnie. (Photo courtesy of Erin O’Malley)