There’s no question that volunteering is a rewarding experience. And being able to include your dog in your volunteer work is the best kind of icing on that cake! If your pooch is certified as a therapy dog, you have an even greater opportunity to improve lives and spread happiness. You can bring smiles to patients in hospitals and nursing homes, or help a child feel more comfortable with reading in a “read to a dog” literacy program. Or maybe you and Fido participate in charity walks for canine cancer, or foster rescue dogs in your home while a shelter tries to find them a forever home. We’re humans, and giving back feels good.
But did you know that dogs benefit from volunteering too? Here are five reasons why volunteering together is such a win/win:
- Socialization. It is so important to expose our dogs to as many different types of people and experiences as possible so they learn to adapt to any situation. If a dog just lives in the backyard, he will be fearful when he meets other dogs or people, and might act aggressively by growling or even biting. If your therapy dog is regularly visiting strangers who pet him and love him, he will have a positive association with a variety of people and continue to be a friendly welcome wagon. Who doesn’t love a wagging dog?
- Mental stimulation. Dogs have around 220 million scent receptors in their noses, compared with about 5 million for humans. They love to put their nose to the ground (or a fire hydrant, or, yes, another dog’s rear end) to help process the world around them. So taking your dog out of the neighborhood’s familiar scents to a place with new and different smells provides sensory enrichment. Whether it’s greeting other dogs at a Walk-a-Thon or sniffing every tree outside a library or hospital, your dog will be delighted for the chance to figure out an unusual setting with his nose.
- Environmental enrichment. Fostering a puppy or dog in your home changes up the daily routine and provides environmental enrichment for your dog. Dogs like having a job, so your pooch can teach a young pup how to behave with humans, in a home, and with other dogs, or help coax a formerly abused dog out of his shell by making him feel safe and comfortable in a new place. Or maybe she will provide companionship for a dog who is used to living in a cage, or show him how to use a puzzle feeder. One way or another, she’ll most likely get a new playmate out of the deal!
- Training reinforcement. When you’re out in public with your dog, it’s a terrific opportunity to practice leash manners and commands like “sit,” “stay,” and “leave it” (the last one is particularly important around hospital food or pills that may have fallen on the floor!). Most experts agree that dogs respond best to positive training methods, such as rewarding your dog with a treat, toy or praise when she does something right. With positive reinforcement, training becomes a game.
- Bonding. There’s a reason why dogs are known as “man’s best friend” – we’ve spent more than 10,000 years domesticating them to be our loyal companions. Our dogs want to spend as much time with us as possible, so sharing activities together definitely strengthens our bond. Volunteering together is a perfect shared activity because it helps others while we bond with our awesome dogs!
If you are interested in volunteering with your dog, begin by researching resources in your community. Ask your local hospital or library if they have a therapy dog program and, if so, how to get involved (there are a number of different therapy dog organizations, so you’ll want to be certified by the one serving your area). Or call a rescue organization or animal shelter to find out more about fostering a dog or cat. Your veterinarian may have information about charity walks or other canine-friendly fundraising events. Have fun volunteering together – your dog will love you for it!