Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions regarding our program. If you have additional questions or need more information, please feel free to contact us.
Q: What do the members of your program do?
A: Members of the Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA) Visiting Pet Program are volunteers who visit hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and other facilities with their registered pets. In residential facilities, these pet/handler teams have permission to visit people in activity rooms and in private rooms. We also visit the Lewis & Clark Library and Helena Valley elementary schools, where children (usually 3rd graders) read out loud to our animals. Most of our volunteers attend on a regular basis, such as weekly or monthly. Volunteers who don’t have suitable pets can accompany Visiting Pet Program teams as escorts.
Q: What exactly do the pets do?
A: In most cases, our volunteers and their pets participate in Animal Assisted Activity, which means the pets are there to cheer people up by giving them physical and emotional contact with a calm, friendly, clean, and well-groomed animal who enjoys being petted. In some facilities, the visits are supervised by health care professionals who document the event. Documented visits that have specific therapeutic goals are called Animal Assisted Therapy.
Q: Where are the facilities located that you visit?
A: Volunteers from the Helena, Montana, chapter of ITA visit in and near the Helena Valley. Currently we visit the Behavioral Health Unit at St. Peter’s Hospital, the VA Hospital, the assisted living homes Touchmark on Saddle Drive and the Masonic Home, the retirement home Hunters Pointe, the Lewis & Clark Library, and schools in Helena and East Helena. More facilities will be added as our program grows.
Q: When do the visits take place? Are they usually during the day, during the week?
A: Many of our visits take place during morning and afternoon hours on weekdays, but some facilities welcome weekend or evening visits.
Q: How many pet/handler teams go on each visit?
A: That depends on the facility and the number of volunteers available. In most cases, two or three pet/handler teams work together, but sometimes a single pet/handler team makes a visit, and at other times, several teams work together.
Q: Are all animals eligible to be therapy animals?
A: The Visiting Pet Program is open to all domestic pets, including dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, and hamsters, plus domesticated farm animals, including goats, sheep, pot-bellied pigs, chickens, llamas, cows, horses, and donkeys. Reptiles, such as snakes and turtles, are not eligible. Neither are wild species like bears, ferrets, hawks, or wild hares. Horses have been used therapeutically for thousands of years – in fact, they were the first true therapy animals. Dogs are by far the most popular therapy animals.
Pets are evaluated individually, and ITA does not discriminate against specific breeds of dog the way some programs do. The only dogs not eligible are those that have been trained as attack dogs or in canine sports that involve bite work. Wolf hybrids are not eligible.
To be appropriate for this activity, animals must be calm, quiet, friendly, healthy, and well-groomed. They must travel well and recover quickly from distractions. They must also enjoy being petted. All animals must be under their handlers’ control at all times.
Q: How can I join your program?
Volunteers can participate with or without an animal. Those who do not have an animal (or who do not have an appropriate animal) can be escorts on visits and can take part in all program activities. We always need volunteers at our prescreen interviews and final screening evaluations and welcome participants of all ages. Volunteers play the part of nursing home residents and others as we test pet/handler teams around medical equipment and various distractions.
Dogs must be at least 18 months old and cats at least one year old to be registered as therapy pets. Dogs and cats adopted as adults must have lived in their new homes for a minimum of six months before applying. Handlers working with a dog or cat belonging to a friend or relative must have known the animal well for at least a year and have the owner’s written permission to participate.
Q: Can children volunteer and participate in the program?
A: The ITA program welcomes children age 10 to 15 if they are accompanied in all aspects of the activity (training, testing, and visits) by a parent or other responsible adult. When children age 10 to 15 take the training workshop with an accompanying adult, a single registration fee is paid. Those age 16 and older may take the training workshop and screening tests independently.
Q: What will I learn in the training workshop?
A: Our training workshop covers Animal Assisted Therapy, Animal Assisted Education, and Animal Assisted Activity. It explains how to conduct pet visits, what animals are appropriate and inappropriate for pet visits, what personality traits are desirable, how to tell if your animal would be a good visiting pet, training requirements, liability issues, equipment, how to prepare yourself and your pet for a visit, how to do a site assessment to determine whether a facility is appropriate for you and your animal, how to contact and work with facility staff, how to schedule visits, benefits of working by yourself, benefits of working with a group, types of facilities, record keeping, safety issues, handling skills, how to prepare for the screening evaluation (skills and aptitude test), what registration means and how it works, identifying signs of stress in your pet, how to support your pet on visits, how to work with different populations, health issues, and other important information.
Q: What training should I do with my dog or other pet?
A: We refer dog owners to trainers for assistance in preparing for this work and for the evaluation. Any trainer with therapy dog experience will be helpful. Classes and workshops that prepare dog/handler teams for the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test, which is a basic obedience test, are excellent preparation for the team evaluation. While there are no obedience requirements for pets other than dogs, making travel and other experiences pleasant for cats and other pets can be excellent training.
The basic requirements for all pets are that they be clean, healthy, well-groomed, affectionate, quiet, stable, and safe. They must travel well and recover quickly from distractions, and they must enjoy being petted by strangers. Pets participating in the R.E.A.D. program are expected to sit or lie still for 15 minutes at a time while children read to them.
Q: When is the next screening evaluation?
A: Please see our events page for upcoming training and evaluation dates. Evaluations (pre-screen interviews and our skills and aptitude tests) are by appointment. The prerequisite for taking a final screening evaluation is the training workshop described above.
Q: Once we complete the registration process, can my dog and I make visits by ourselves, or do we have to join a local organization?
A: You can make visits on your own. In the training workshop, you will learn how to contact facility staff and organize visits. Joining a local group of pet/handler teams provides certain advantages. You can make visits with other people and their pets instead of going by yourself, you can get additional training and support from the local group, and the local group offers a variety of possible places to visit, all of which are safe and appropriate for pet visits.
Q: What is the R.E.A.D.® (Reading Education Assistance Dogs®) Program?
A: The Helena ITA Book Hounds Program is a R.E.A.D.® Affiliate program with a licensed instructor. R.E.A.D.® stands for Reading Education Assistance Dogs®. This literacy program was founded by Intermountain Therapy Animals in Salt Lake City in 1999. R.E.A.D.® has over 3,500 registered teams in the United States and several foreign countries who visit schools and libraries to help improve the reading skills of children primarily in grades K - 4. Visits to libraries are considered Animal Assisted Activity while visits in the school setting are Animal Assisted Therapy if they involve working with children on a regular basis and tracking their reading progress. Our group offers R.E.A.D.® training workshops twice a year for therapy teams, reading specialists, librarians, teachers, and anyone who wishes to learn about the program. R.E.A.D.® workshops are also offered in Bozeman, Montana.
For upcoming dates and registration forms, see our events page on this website. Registered ITA teams receive discounted rates on the R.E.A.D.® training workshop and manual as well as on the one-time lifetime R.E.A.D.® registration fee.