Anything you can do, I can do better. I'm just kidding. Sort of.
The truth is that sometimes animals are better than humans at bringing comfort and joy to others—especially disabled children, at-risk youth, and elderly dementia patients. You've probably heard of therapy dogs, but did you know that cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, donkeys, dolphins, horses, fish, hamsters, sheep, llamas, alpacas, potbellied pigs, birds, and chickens go out of their way to make people feel loved?
The Gentle Barn, a peaceful place in California for over 120 severely abused animals, offers private tours for at-risk youth. Ellie, the founder, believes that 'animals, with their unconditional love and non-judgmental attitude, can often reach kids more deeply and effectively than people can.' There's just something special about hugging a cow or snuggling with a pig.
There's a donkey sanctuary in the UK that offers an outreach service in which teams of specially trained donkeys visit dementia patients in hospices and residential homes. Their donkey assisted therapy centers have helped hundreds of special needs children improve their confidence, self-esteem, major and minor motor skills, core balance, and sense of achievement. Their website explains that 'even the most disturbed, agitated or withdrawn child is more relaxed when stroking or talking to the donkeys.'
If you want to team up with an animal to brighten your corner of the world, but you don't happen to have a donkey lying around the house, don't panic. Any old dog (or cat or rabbit, etc) will do just fine. Here are three ways for you and your pet to spread kindness:
1. Use non-toxic ink or water-based paint to make a paw-printed card. I myself have made paw-printed valentines for my friends at a nursing home, disabled group home, and homeless teen shelter. I was really happy when everybody went crazy over the cards. One of the ladies at the nursing home said, 'I had no idea that a dog could do such a thing.' I've also used my paw-print to make reindeer antlers on Christmas cards for soldiers. Perhaps your pet could send a paw-printed birthday card to a disabled child that says, 'I dig you.' I bet the kids at your local children hospital would love an 'I wuf you' card from your four-legged friend.
2. Put together a gift basket for somebody from your pet. If you have a rabbit, get an Easter basket and fill it with plastic eggs that have messages inside such as 'Some bunny loves you' and 'I only have ears for you.' If you've got a cat, assemble a Get Well basket for someone who is feeling under the weather. Fill it with chicken noodle soup, fresh fruit, and of course, notes on colorful paper that say, 'I hope to see you back on your paws soon' and 'You are pawsitively wonderful.'
3. Take your pet shopping to pick out some toys or food for the animals at your local shelter. Sometimes shelters have wish lists on their websites.
4. Take your pet to visit a nursing home, domestic abuse shelter, homeless teen shelter, children's hospital, school, orphanage, or disabled group home. Your pet should be friendly, properly trained, and well groomed. Some places require that your pet be a certified therapy animal, so make sure you don't just show up without calling first to make sure it's okay. (If you've searched your house thoroughly but can't find a therapy chicken anywhere, don't worry. There may be an organization nearby that can loan you a furry friend when you volunteer.) I visited all kinds of places when I was training to become a certified therapy dog. I loved to make people laugh by giving them High Fives. I could tell they were glad to see me when they closed their eyes and snuggled their faces against my soft golden fur. One time I spent a few minutes with an Alzheimer's patient who was unable to speak. On my way out, the nurse said, 'That's the most I've seen him smile since he's been here.'
5. Provide a temporary foster home for a shelter animal until they can find a permanent home. Thousands of perfectly good puppies, kittens, dogs, and cats are euthanized in shelters every single day because people don't spay or neuter their pets. Many of them could be saved if more people would volunteer to take in a furry houseguest for a little while. My family has fostered almost 200 shelter puppies, and I help by teaching them important doggy socialization skills like 'Don't steal food from another dog.' I myself would have been euthanized at a shelter if it hadn't been for a kind woman who picked me up and let me stay at her house until I found a family to call my own. Fostering isn't a lifetime commitment. It's a commitment to save a life. I'm probably biased, but I think Doris Day said it best. 'I have found that when you are deeply troubled, there are things you get from the silent devoted companionship of a dog that you can get from no other source.'
If you don't already have a pet in your life, then you should probably get in your car right now and head straight to the closest animal shelter. I'll let them know you're coming.
Chipper is a therapy dog dropout and author who lives in Bailey, Colorado. Her autobiDOGraphy, which teaches that you don't have to be perfect to make a difference, has been featured in Denver Dog Magazine and Mile High Dog. To learn more about Chipper, visit www.ChippersFriends.com and follow her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/ChippersFriends.