Some of the same benefits that stem from exercise—reduced stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure and increased endorphins—are also true of pet therapy. Also known as animal-assisted therapy, pet therapy involves more than using service dogs to help people who are hearing or sight impaired. Pet therapy is a connection, ideally one that forms between animals and young patients who may be dealing with serious medical conditions.
The bond formed between an animal and a patient can assist children in recovering from medical conditions, coping with pain and dealing with the emotional toll of anxiety, sadness, loneliness and fear that often accompany lengthy stays in a hospital. At its most basic level, pet therapy provides a dose of unconditional love that helps improve a child’s quality of life.
Benefits of Pet Therapy
Any dog owner knows the benefits of being greeted by a loving pet after a hard day’s work. Now there is scientific research to confirm the positive effects that pet therapy has on physical and mental health. In addition to lowering blood pressure and reducing anxiety, pet therapy can stimulate the release of endorphins like oxytocin. This hormone helps us feel happy, trusting and optimistic. These important feelings can have a positive impact on attitudes towards treatment and healing.
Studies show that just playing with or petting a dog can cause oxytocin levels to rise. Increased levels of oxytocin can give children greater motivation to participate in treatment. Interactions with a friendly, loving and gentle pet can also:
- Help children deal with painful treatments and conditions, reduce fear and help put children at ease
- Increase positive social behaviors for children with an autism spectrum disorder
- Elevate mood, reduce anxiety and depression and increase a child’s sense of well-being
- Boost energy
- Improve sleep
- Provide comfort and support
- Help with boredom and provide a distraction from routine
Pet therapy can also reduce stress on families and caregivers.
Pet Therapy Safety
Pet therapy programs are safe for your child. Participating dogs are vaccinated, trained and evaluated for appropriate behavior. Dogs are registered with national therapy dog programs. Pet therapy volunteers have also been trained and screened through the Riley at IU Health Volunteer Services Department.
What is the process for participating in pet therapy?
Given the high priority that health and safety have at Riley at IU Health, specific units and patients must be approved for visits based on our Infection Control Policy. Once a patient and family are approved, pet therapy visits can be coordinated through Child Life.
Pet Therapy Volunteer Requirements
Steps to Become a Pet Therapy Volunteer at Riley:
- Please check the Pet Therapy Program Requirements listed below to make sure that you and your pet qualify for the program. We will only accept Pet Therapy Teams who meet all updated policy criteria. Please be prepared to show documentation for all requirements.
- If you feel you meet the requirements please use our online application to apply. Please notate that you are applying to be a Pet Therapy Team on the application. Pet Therapy volunteers and their pets need to be interviewed by the Pet Therapy Coordinator before moving on to the next step. This interview will include your pet.
- Please contact the Pet Therapy Coordinator via email at firstname.lastname@example.org in order to set up an interview. Please do not sign up for interviews or orientations via the Volunteer Resources links until you have completed an interview with the Pet Therapy Coordinator and have been accepted as a Pet Therapy Team at Riley.
- Please allow time for Volunteer Resources and then the Pet Therapy Coordinator to process your application and respond.
Pet Therapy Program Requirements:
- All Pet Therapy Teams must be certified through a Therapy Dog Certification Program similar to Pet Partners or Paws and Think. These programs are independent from the hospital and are the first step for your dog to be a considered a certified therapy dog.
- All volunteers must be at least 18 years old.
- Teams are required to visit the hospital a minimum of two visits per month.
- Therapy dogs should be at least one year of age or older.
- Certification programs must provide liability insurance for all of the program's certified Pet Therapy Teams. Handlers will be asked to provide proof of insurance at the time of interview.
- Certification programs should provide recertification through temperament testing annually or biannually. Handlers will be asked to provide proof of temperament testing at time of recertification.
- Handlers must show proof of vaccination records and yearly health screening through a licensed veterinarian. Dogs should be on flea and tick prevention medication.
- Dogs should be bathed 24 hours before entering the hospital.
- Dogs should not be fed a raw diet.
- Dogs should be free of skin conditions or open wounds.
- Dogs cannot have a history of aggression towards strangers.
- Animals must be on a leash and under the volunteer owner’s control at all times.
Failure to pass or complete any requirement in the application and orientation process disqualifies a candidate and dog for volunteer service.
Have a question about volunteering? Submit your inquiry and we will respond as soon as possible.
Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health
705 Riley Hospital Drive
Indianapolis, IN 46202
Riley Children's Health at IU Health North
1700 N. Meridian Street
Carmel, IN 46032
The Child Life and Creative Arts Therapies Department at Riley at IU Health offers occasional internship opportunities and career education for students who are interested in child life, music therapy or art therapy. If you are interested in learning more about related education, visit us for updates about internships and scheduled educational events, or send us an email.