LIVINGSTON, NJ – Creature Comfort Pet Therapy—a nonprofit with programs held throughout the Livingston area intended to “enhance lives through therapeutic visits with caring volunteers and their pets”—has grown so quickly in the seven years since its inception that the supply of pet and volunteer teams the organization certifies is no longer keeping step with the demand for the increasingly popular service.

In comparison to the 12 volunteers and small handful of host facilities at the nonprofit’s start, Creature Comfort now boasts a roster of more than 250 volunteers. According to Executive Director Mary Beth Cooney, the organization closed out 2018 with more than 3,600 visits, representing more than 4,300 volunteer hours dedicated to touching more than 70,000 people at 200 participating facilities in eight New Jersey counties.

“In a single week, we can get three-to-five requests from facilities,” said Cooney.  “Unfortunately, we just can’t accept all the facility requests that come through because we simply don’t have enough volunteers to accommodate those requests.”

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Creature Comfort is currently seeking Livingston pet owners to fill the various volunteer opportunities offered at local hospitals and hospice facilities, nursing homes, schools, libraries, adult day care centers, domestic violence shelters, veterans’ housing complexes and corporations. Once volunteers become certified through Creature Comfort, they can create their own schedule based on availability.

“The certification test is a test for the team; the team is person and pet,” said Mary Jean Barnes, director of development for the organization. “You always operate as a team when you’re doing pet therapy. If a family has a family pet and mom and dad and their child all want to be certified, each team of two would have to be certified because we want to see how each person interacts with the pet.”

Although most teams include an owner and man’s best friend, Creature Comfort Pet Therapy also allows cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, mini goats and ferrets to become certified.

Pets must meet certain criteria to be considered, such as being controllable by their handler; proactive in approaching strangers for petting; adaptable to all types of people, including children; at least one year old; living with their current owner for at least six months; confident in unfamiliar situations and environments; and neutral in the presence of other animals. The temperament of the animal is much more important than the breed, according to Cooney.

Teams looking to be certified are required to attend an hour-long group evaluation with other pet-and-owner teams. These are offered once or twice a month at a location in either Rockaway or Morristown.

“During the evaluation, our evaluators want to see how the animal reacts to different stimuli,” said Barnes. “What we’ll do during the test is set up different scenarios. For example, we’ll have a volunteer push a wheelchair next to the animal. We’ll drop something by the animal to make some noise. We’ll put food on the floor to see what they do. We’ll have a group of people make noise by clapping or talking to see how the animal reacts.”

Creature Comfort has recently started holding multiple tests in the same room in order to gauge how the pets react to other animals. As an example, Barnes said that if an “ultra calm” dog is introduced to the dogs being tested, any dogs that get aggressive in any way will be pulled from the process.

Teams that pass the evaluator’s checklist advance to an orientation session held the same day, where details of what it’s like to be a volunteer are reviewed. The pet is given a neckerchief to identify him or her as a certified Creature Comfort volunteer as well as an identification card to be used at all participating facilities. Pets also receive trading cards detailing the animal’s name and other pertinent statistics that can be handed out as calling cards to those receiving comfort on visits.

To close out the process, the volunteer provides the animal’s shot records and pays a nominal fee of $100 for a team, $50 for each additional family member being certified with the same pet and $25 for any additional pet. The certification remains in place for two years, after which time an additional $25 re-certification fee is required. 

“If they don’t pass, they’ll get all kinds of feedback from us about why they didn’t because the goal is to pass the animal,” said Barnes. “Sometimes it’s a really young dog, so we may say take them for training to help them get some of their energy out.”

Once certified, participants are given access to the scheduling system to sign up for either recurring or one-time visits. Teams also have the option to sign up only once for a certain type of visit, which mainly includes visits to various wards or wings of nursing homes or hospitals.

For example, recurring visits can include the more than 100 monthly visits available at Morristown Medical Center, which is one of the organization’s most visited sites. However, some facilities require that a team meet additional criteria, such as no barking in hospital environments, submit to background checks, or complete paperwork that is specific to that facility.

One-time visits are also offered, such as a recent visit to United Airlines in December, where volunteers visited terminals to greet travelers.

“We also do special one-time visits at the colleges around exam time because students are super stressed out and it’s a great stress reliever,” said Barnes. “And we do reading to the pet programs in elementary or special needs schools where the kids will read to the dogs to get comfortable with reading. The teacher then incorporates that experience into their curriculum so kids might also then write about the experience.”

Cooney added that “the power of pet therapy is real and is actually scientific.”

“When you pet a calm and loving animal, it releases a wellness chemical called oxytocin, which reduces blood pressure, increases socialization, reduces pain and lessens feelings of isolation,” said Cooney, who added that the benefits of pet therapy are not limited to the people being visited by volunteer teams. “Something that people don’t realize is that the animals love doing this, too. Dogs, in particular, are built to have a job and this is a job they love. 

“During the first or second visit, they realize they get petted the whole time. While they’re bringing healing comfort and companionship to people, they’re also receiving it at the same time.”

She also said that the people who do this don’t have to have a background in psychology, but “are simply good-hearted people who want to help.”

“Our volunteers are with people who are experiencing grief, pain or are in recovery from any kind of addiction or a surgery,” said Cooney. “The volunteers enhance lives, bring smiles, bring relief from stress and deliver laughter and joy.”

"Creature Comfort Pet Therapy has given Ruby and me greater purpose in our community,” said volunteer Kim Ievy. “We benefit as much if not more than the people we serve.”

To find out more about the certification process or to become a pet therapy team, visit www.ccpettherapy.org or call 973-285-9083.