Getting Started with Pet Partners


About this Page

I created this page to assist people interested in becoming involved in therapy animal work. My dog and I volunteer as a registered Pet Partners team at Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital in Vancouver, WA.

I also volunteer as a licensed Pet Partners Instructor, and teach the Pet Partners Handler Course to students in the greater Vancouver, WA – Portland, OR area. And I serve as President of Columbia River Pet Partners, a local organization of Pet Partners teams.

The Handler Course is designed for anyone interested in volunteering with their pet. It fulfills the handler training required to continue on to Pet Partners team evaluation and registration. The course provides the handler with the knowledge to successfully conduct therapy animal visits, as well as the knowledge necessary to prepare for the Pet Partners evaluation.

Pet Partners teams consist of the handler and their animal (dog, cat, rabbit, bird…), and volunteer in a wide variety of facilities including schools, libraries, retirement homes, assisted living homes, nursing homes, hospitals and hospices.

I hope you will join us and begin sharing your animal’s love with those in need. I will be glad to help you in any way I can, no matter where you live.

Peter Christensen


Introduction to Therapy Animals

This page will give you a good overview of therapy animal work:

It covers how therapy animals heal, the various types of facilities in which they serve, and many other interesting topics.

As you will read, the majority of therapy animal work is classified as Animal Assisted Activities (AAA). Typical examples include visits to patients in hospitals and residents in retirement homes.

However, registered Pet Partners are also qualified to work with physical and mental health professionals. This work is classified as Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), and sessions are designed to help the client achieve specific goals such as increased mobility or improved memory.

You may also be interested in the answers to these frequently asked questions:

  • Can a therapy dog visit my relative?
  • Can I take my therapy dog to work with me?
  • How do I train my puppy to be a therapy dog?

Program Requirements

Carefully review the criteria for prospective therapy animals and handlers on the Pet Partners website:

And before going any further, you should also carefully read:

  • Pet Partners Therapy Animal Program Policies and Procedures

The Evaluation

This video provides a demonstration of a Pet Partners evaluation and will give you an idea of how an evaluation is conducted. Total playtime is just over 16 minutes.

This page shares tip I have learned observing evaluations, both from watching people pass and watching people fail. They will help you prepare for your evaluation, and help you avoid the common mistakes handlers make.

How to Prepare for a Pet Partners Evaluation
You can skip the above page until after you have taken the Handler Course and are preparing for your evaluation.

Community Partner Groups

Columbia River Pet Partners is a Community Partner of the national Pet Partners organization. We serve the greater Portland, OR – Vancouver, WA area, and beyond. Our membership reaches from the Columbia River Gorge west to the Pacific Ocean, north to Longview and south to Salem.

Our primary activity is reaching out to people with big hearts, a little spare time and a well-behaved animal, and helping them through the process of becoming registered therapy animal teams serving their communities. If you live in this region, we would like to help you!

Please visit our membership page for an explanation of the relationship between Columbia River Pet Partners and the national Pet Partners organization. This will help you understand why you would want to join Columbia River Pet Partners, Pet Partners, or both:

  • Membership in Columbia River Pet Partners

If you live outside this area, you can search for a local Pet Partners Community Partner Group here:

  • Pet Partners Community Partner Groups

Serving the greater Portland, OR – Vancouver, WA area and beyond

The Steps to Registration with Fees

There are four steps to becoming a registered Pet Partners team:
1. Handler Course: The Handler Course may be taken either on-line or in-person, but those who can get to a class find it a much more enjoyable and fulfilling learning process. They also have a much higher evaluation success rate.

The fee for the on-line Handler Course is $70, while fees for in-person courses vary greatly.

2. Evaluation: The fee for an evaluation is around $25, and you may not pass the first time.

3. Animal Health Screening: You may also have to pay for a health examination for your animal if your animal has not had one in the past year.

A Pet Partners Animal Health Screening form must be completed by your vet and submitted with your registration.

While you don’t submit this form until after both your class and your evaluation, if you happen to be making a healthy visit to your vet before registration time you might as well have your vet complete the form. It will remain valid for one year.

4. Registration: Pet Partners registration fees are listed on the Pet Partners website:

Pet Partners Registration Fees

It is not necessary to join a local Community Partner group like Columbia River Pet Partners to register with Pet Partners national. However, you’ll see on the above list that the $95 and $70 registration fees are reduced to $50 for members of Community Partners.

Columbia River Pet Partners’ fees are as follows:

  • Annual Membership Dues – $10 for individuals; $15 for families
  • Handler Course – $50 includes Handler Guide and handouts
  • Handler Course Companion – $25 includes handouts only (for additional person)
  • Evaluation Practice – free (for members only)
  • Evaluation – $10

Finding Courses and Evaluations

Upcoming Pet Partners courses and evaluations are listed on the Pet Partners website. To view the listings, follow these steps:

  1. Go to the Pet Partners website:
  2. Hover over Volunteer, then click on Calendar of Events in the dropdown menu.
  3. You can then simply scroll down the page, or first apply filters such as State or the type of event you are looking for.

Columbia River Pet Partners courses and evaluations are also listed here:
Columbia River Pet Partners Courses & Evaluations

Are You Ready to Begin?

Working the waiting room of a hospital, a man asked me about signing up to join us with his dog. He seemed very interested, so I spent 10 minutes talking to him about therapy dog work. I was excited to possibly be recruiting him.

Then he told me that he’d inquired at another hospital, and said they were “ridiculous.” They wanted him to go through an orientation class, and he’d have none of that!

What was he thinking? Should just anyone, even a registered therapy animal team, be able to wander through a hospital visiting patients without first learning about the hospital layout, volunteer procedures, disease prevention and patient privacy regulations?

While it might be a much simpler process to start making visits to your mom’s retirement home, in order to help people through therapy animal work you and your animal have to be trained, evaluated, registered, and then become a volunteer for the facility you will be visiting as well as a volunteer for Pet Partners.

I don’t mean to discourage you, but it’s important that you realize all that is involved in the process before you make the decision to begin.

Below you will find lists of attributes that make a great team. But you don’t need to have all these attributes at the time you begin your journey. In fact, I often have students take my class when their dogs are only puppies. What is important is that you are confident that you know what is ahead, and that you are dedicated to completing the process.

One other consideration is that your Handler Course Completion Certificate is valid for participation in a team evaluation for two years. If you aren’t ready to evaluate within two years of completing the Handler Course, you will have to re-take it.

Attributes of a Great Therapy Animal

  • Controllable, predictable and reliable, even with distractions
  • Friendly and confident
  • People-oriented and sociable such that they enjoy visiting
  • Comfortable being crowded by a group of people and touched, sometimes awkwardly
  • Non-aggressive and well-mannered with both people and other animals
  • Will initiate contact, and yet respects personal boundaries
  • Able to be redirected on cue, including being directed away from people and objects
  • Able to cope with stressful situations
  • Comfortable around health care equipment
  • The animal must also have the following essential skills:
    • Walk on a leash without pulling
    • Sit
    • Down
    • Stay
    • Come
    • Leave it!
    • Take treats nicely
  • The animal must also have the following good manners:
    • No jumping on people or furniture
    • Minimal if any vocalizing, stoppable on cue
    • Minimal if any licking, stoppable on cue
    • Can walk past other animals without displaying aggression or excessive fear
    • Refrains from intrusive behaviors (nosing around)
    • Reliably housebroken

Attributes of a Great Therapy Animal Handler

  • Willing to make commitments and keep them
  • Interested in people
  • Friendly, making eye contact and smiling
  • Good communicators with their animal, facility staff, and the people they meet during visits
  • Confident and natural in their interactions
  • A good listener
  • Demonstrates a loving relationship with their animal
  • A proactive advocate for their animal, watching for signs of stress and taking actions to control the situation
  • Prepares themselves and their animal appropriately for each visit
  • Knows how to help their animal be at its best in serving others
  • Assesses each visit before, during and after