If you're looking to start a rewarding career working with your dog, you may have a challenge. Most people who visit with their dogs do so voluntarily. However, that's not to say there are not a few opportunities out there if you think creatively and market yourself well.
First Things First
Before you consider a career in animal therapy you must have the proper license or certification. A number of organizations exist that can prepare and register you to work in places where people bring their dogs to perform a service. Some of them only allow dogs, while others allow all species. You don't necessarily have to have a therapy dog -- you can have a cat, chicken, pig, or just about any mammal or bird as long as it is well behaved and passes the temperament testing. Pet Partners, formerly known as the Delta Society (deltasociety.org) is one of the largest and most prestigious of these organizations, but you also may find one that is confined to your state. Check around and find the right organization. You will need this certification because facilities will not allow you and your animal near their patients or clients without liability insurance, and Pet Partners covers you up to $1 million. The process is not difficult and once you are certified you will find a lot of open doors.
Once you are certified you can work as a reading tutor. Many volunteers work with children in the school after hours and in libraries where programs exist for children to read to dogs. Reluctant readers who are afraid to read aloud due to accents or poor reading skills often will fall behind in class. These students are not so shy around dogs, so the "reading to dogs" programs work well for them. If you are a certified teacher, or are looking to become certified, you can work as a private tutor and be paid for your time. Many parents are looking for tutors and if you are the only tutor in your area who works with a dog, you may have an edge over other tutors. You can either work in the student's home, or meet the student in the media center after school.
Special Needs Children
There has been a lot of research into autism, and over the years the experts have learned about new ways to reach these special-needs kids. Since autistic kids don't relate well to people and some of them are shy about being touched, dogs have been brought in to work with them with great success. If you align yourself with a social worker, psychologist or therapist working with special needs kids you may be able to bill your time because the therapist will give you goals and objectives to achieve every time you meet with the child. Volunteers sometimes are used in this manner, but a professional therapist who works only with special-needs children and who builds a reputation will be in high demand once the word gets out that you are having success with children with an array of problems. There are Pet Partner teams working in this capacity with kids with Down syndrome and a host of other conditions, and they are building a successful career this way. Some of them are working towards having the health insurance company pick up the tab for their services.
If you have a degree or certification in addiction counselling you may be employed by an inpatient facility working as an animal-assisted therapist. Because of the high degree of privacy necessary to maintain patient confidentiality, volunteer pet therapists usually are not permitted to visit drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers. Therapists who work with patients sometimes feel that animal-assisted therapy is the best way to get through to these patients, many of whom have alienated everyone around them. This is why the unconditional love of an animal works so well in this setting. Even if you don't have a certification or degree in drug and alcohol addiction, you may be able to partner with a certified rehabilitation specialist who will call you in as needed.
So get started on your new career! The sky is the limit as to how you can earn money working as an animal therapist. Teach children to swim alongside a friendly dog, or help a fearful child feel safe around dogs. Offer dog bite prevention programs at day camps and childcare centers, and charge for your services. Just about any service you can offer would be enhanced greatly by the presence of a suitable therapy dog.
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.