by Maureen Greaves

I was wandering around a Calgary dog show and happened upon a booth sponsored by PALS (Pet Access League Society). PALS is a non-profit organization started in 1982 and is the largest organization of its kind in North America doing pet visits within one city. PALS has nearly 500 volunteers and their pets visiting 46 facilities including hospitals, long term care facilities, group homes and correctional centers. You can read more about PALS by visiting their website.

At the time my berner, Cutter, was only six months old, but after talking to the volunteers in the booth I decided that this was something that I would want to volunteer for in the future. Several years passed and we added another berner to our family. It was at a friend’s wedding that the PALS program came up in a conversation and the person I was talking to said “what are you waiting for?” apply! So I did.

The application itself was simple enough and right on the web. Very basic questions about myself, my dog, our training, my dog’s health and temperament were completed and emailed off to PALS. A few weeks later I received a phone call and was asked to come into the office with Cutter for an interview. We were asked to bring with us proof of current vaccinations, a Pet Heath Assessment form completed by our veterinarian and I had to have a security clearance completed by the RCMP. 

The initial interview was a very informal affair conducted by two ladies and a golden retriever. It included questions about myself and Cutter, as well as what we expected from the program and if we had any experience with special needs children or the elderly.

They were also watching Cutter’s reaction to strangers and other dogs. We passed with flying colors and were invited to the pet screening interview a few weeks later. 

The pet screening test was a zoo. There were between 10-15 potential volunteers, their dogs, the volunteer screeners and a cat all crammed into a small reception area. What I did not realize at the time, you were being tested as soon as you walked through the door! Eventually all of the “screeners” had introduced themselves to me and thoroughly loved Cutter, which included playing with his tail, feet, mouth and ears. They also brought the cat by for a reaction. From there we were taken one at a time into an even smaller office for more reaction testing with two screeners. We were asked to start in one corner of the room and walk towards the middle of the room where we would meet a “stranger” and engage in a short conversation and continue walking. We did this several times. The first time it was just the screener/stranger, the second time the screener had a walking cane, the third time she had a walker and the final time she had a wheel chair. In the final test I was told to walk up to one of the screeners, still seated in the wheel chair, have a short conversation, turn and walk away. As I was walking away a metal garbage can was dropped on the ground (to simulate a bed pan). This was to gauge our reaction and recovery. Your dog is allowed to be startled but must be able to recover in a reasonable amount of time. We PASSED! 

With a passing grade we were given our special royal blue PALS bandana and royal blue short lead that MUST be worn for all visits to identify us as a PALS volunteer team. 

The final step is the volunteer orientation where we were given our binder and name tag as well as our team assignment. PALS volunteers work on a team with a team leader and visit the same facility. We were assigned to the Bethany Care Facility in Calgary which cares for mostly elderly residents. Although we primarily visit the Bethany Care, we have also been able to attend a few special visits at the Society for the Treatment of Autism.

Volunteering in a pet visitation program has been very rewarding and we are thoroughly enjoying the experience. Cutter’s only complaint is that he has to be groomed before we go!

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer in the Calgary area, go to the PALS website. 

Kathy Kennedy's Emily doing Therapy work


Websites on pet therapy: 
PALS = Pets Access League Society
St. John Ambulance
Therapeudic Paws of Canada
Therapy Dogs International