Your new pet project: sharing your loving dog

Everything's more fun with a friend, even if that buddy is a different species – your dog. With their bounding enthusiasm and agreeable nature, most canines are fitting companions to just about any outing. If yours is well trained and social, consider partnering up and exploring the different ways you can become more involved in your community and share your special pet experience with others.

Bring in some companionship


There's no denying that interacting with a dog can lift your spirits, and countless studies credit pet ownership with health and emotional benefits. People in nursing homes, hospitals or rehab facilities often long for companionship and would enjoy a pooch play date. Many centers have regulations in place as to who can visit, so if you're met with difficulty, look into getting certification through an established organization, such as PetPartners, which trains and evaluates therapy-animal teams.

Mary Margaret Callahan, National Director of Program Development at Pet Partners, says that any breed of dog, over age one, is eligible for their program, along with the dog's human handler.


"The real key for success are teams with both the skills and aptitude for this work," she says. "Dogs should have mastered basic obedience skills, have the ability to manage new environments and interact positively with a range of individuals."

Once you've passed your evaluation and received your certification, you're free to offer your services as a visiting team at hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and other facilities in your area.

Help out homeless buddies

If you and your best friend were brought together by adoption, or if you just have a soft spot for homeless animals, there are many ways to help those still awaiting a home.

Shelters and rescues often turn to successfully adopted dogs to become a "spokes-dog" for their organization. In this role, the dog and owner promote the benefits of adoption. While each organization's needs differ, a spokes-dog might be asked to attend community events, mingle during adoption hours, or visit schools.

The Humane Society of Huron Valley, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, selects a different spokes-dog each year. The honoree helps promote the shelter's annual fundraiser walk/run, as well as other adoption-awareness tasks.

"This year's dog is a pitbull-mix, Casper, who had cancer when he came in. We operated, but there were no guarantees," says Deb Kern, marketing manager. "He was adopted, and he's happy and still cancer-free."

Even if you can't don an official title, you can still be a valuable role model.


"Offering to share your adoption story can be very helpful," adds Kern, adding that particularly people with some reach – such as a coach or newsperson – can generate valuable attention.

Finally, if you have room in your home and your heart, consider being a foster parent for a dog. Living among people helps a foster dog perfect manners and learn valuable social skills from your dog. Meanwhile, you'll free up space in the shelter. Just be prepared not to get attached; a foster situation can last anywhere from a handful of days to several months.

Give a student a break

Students of all ages benefit from the company of a canine. New or struggling young readers are often hesitant to read aloud to their peers, but when their audience is a non-judgmental dog, they'll blossom. Check with your area elementary schools or library to see if they allow canine listeners.

More and more colleges and universities are recognizing the need to creatively minimize stress in their students. Pets on Wheels, Inc., of Baltimore, Maryland, has sent dogs and handlers in for "stress-buster" sessions at many area colleges, including Loyola University/Notre Dame Library, University of Maryland, Goucher College.

"These sessions are typically conducted during exam and finals week and allow the students to enjoy quiet, relaxing time with our therapy pets," says Pat Pawloski, Executive Director. "Many students truly miss their pets at home and are thrilled to interact with our pets. (After a session,) students are better prepared to tackle the rigors of exams."


While giving back to your community is beneficial in itself, your relationship with your dog will blossom as well, says Callahan.

"Working together as a team only helps to strengthen your bond," she says, adding that in the process, you'll come to know your animal better, and will be able to read his body language and signals.

"You'll have the opportunity to brighten someone else's day on visits while strengthening the relationship you have with your pet, and we think that is pretty amazing," she says.

— By Debbie Swanson, Tribune Brand Publishing