How to Get a Therapy Pet to Visit a Loved One at Home

Posted: 7/19/2018 1:46 PM by Interim HealthCare

Contributed by Maura Rhodes, a health journalist based in Montclair, New Jersey, who has written about caregiving throughout all ages and stages of life.

Seniors don’t need to live in nursing homes to enjoy visits from a furry friend.

Anyone who likes animals knows how calming and comforting it can be to stroke and cuddle a friendly dog or cat. It’s little wonder that therapy pets are often brought into nursing homes and hospice facilities. Research has found that petting or playing with an animal can ease anxiety and depression and provide cardiovascular benefits, including lowering blood pressure and decreasing heart rate.
But did you know that you can arrange—often at no cost—to have a therapy pet visit a sick or aging relative in their home?
One group that offers such visits is the Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD), a not-for-profit organization based in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It trains therapy dogs and provides visits throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada and Columbia. To arrange for a visit, go to their Contact Us page.  
For the names and contact information of other therapy dog groups that may do home visits, either on a national basis or in your area, check out the American Kennel Club’s list of recognized dog therapy associations.
If you’d prefer to treat your loved one to a visit from another type of animal, there are pet therapy organizations that work with cats as well as rabbits, guinea pigs and other cuddly creatures. Some ways to find one near you that offers home visits: Ask your parent’s geriatrician or other doctor, call nearby nursing homes and ask what resource they use, call your local health department or department of human resources, or even contact pet stores in your area. Another option is Pet Partners, a national pet therapy organization that will arrange home visits.
There’s no cost for a therapy pet visit from an organization such as ATD or Pet Partners that’s staffed with volunteers.
Before arranging to have a therapy animal visit your loved one, heed these tips from Billie Smith, executive director of ATD.
Make sure the person is on board to spend time with a pet. “Typically we get requests from people whose parent has had dogs throughout their life and is missing that. They want to bring back those pleasant memories for their mom or dad,” says Smith. However, even if your loved one doesn’t have a happy history with dogs (or cats), it doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy the company of one. “Give it a shot unless your parent is vehemently opposed to the idea,” Smith suggests. “So many times I’ve seen a dog just stand by a person’s bed and within five minutes that person is petting and interacting with it.”
Get the green light from your loved one’s doctor. Let the doctor know you’re thinking of bringing in a therapy animal, just in case there’s some medical reason you shouldn’t. Some organizations also require a note from a doctor that states a person would benefit from a therapy dog visit.
Plan to be there. Smith says the teams who volunteer for ATD are not allowed to visit a home where a caregiver isn’t present. If you can’t be there, make sure someone who is comfortable with animals will be, whether it’s a nurse or an aide or a close family friend.  
Put other pets away. Chances are, says Smith, if a family is asking for a therapy dog visit, there are no other animals in the household. But if there are, “we advise keeping it separate from the visiting dog.”
Request a breed, if you like. Let’s say your mom had Shelties all her life. While there’s no guarantee there will be a team in your area that has one, it’s worth asking, says Smith, who adds that ATD often gets requests for specific breeds or types of dogs and will try to accommodate whenever possible.
Consider asking for a small dog or getting another type of pet. If the person is mostly bed- or wheelchair-bound, a small dog or cat will be able to fit on their bed or in their lap, making it easier to cuddle.
Don’t ask for a puppy, especially for someone in hospice care. For a dog, visiting someone who’s in hospice care can be draining. “It will definitely take on all of the stress and anxiety the patient is going through,” explains Smith. The best dogs for visiting the terminally ill are ones that have had a lot of experience in all sorts of situations, including schools where kids read to them, for example, and assisted-living homes where folks are still relatively robust and healthy.
Expect a 30- to 60-minute visit. Smith says this is typical. Of course, you can work out something different with the human member of the team who will be visiting you.
It may take a little digging to find a therapy pet team that does home visits near you, but considering the light it can bring to the life of a senior who is lonely, anxious or depressed, or to someone who is recovering from surgery, it could be well worth the effort.