Animal Handler Volunteers

Animal Handler Volunteers

Animal Handler Volunteers

Northwestern Medicine invites volunteers and their animals, who are qualified through an approved therapy animal organization, to engage in patient and staff visits at our various facilities. Please understand that possession of registration does not automatically qualify a team to join the NM program.

Requirements and Frequently Asked Questions

Animal handler volunteers must:

  • Be a minimum of 18 years old
  • Obtain registration as a handler team through one of our approved organizations
  • Complete all general volunteer onboarding requirements including: interview, virtual orientation, health screen and background check
  • Be willing to follow all the rules of the program and attend all required training
  • Commit to a minimum of 2 visits per month at their home location
  • Complete an on-site orientation (without animal)
  • Successfully complete Northwestern Medicine’s temperament testing and visitation training, which consists of 3 visits with designated staff member or mentor handler
  • Provide annual documentation from approved therapy animal organization, liability insurance certificate and updated veterinarian records for their animal

All approved animals must:

  • Be a minimum of one year old
  • Pass a thorough annual examination and fecal culture which tests for the following: Salmonella, Shigella, Giardia and Campylobacter
  • Be kept on strict vaccination schedule (updated annually) including: rabies vaccine and parasite prevention, administered and documented by a licensed veterinarian.
  • Be clean and well-groomed prior to their visit. They shall be regularly bathed and thoroughly brushed, nails clipped without any ragged edges, ears cleaned and free of any odor, eyes clean and have clean teeth and breath.

Animal assisted activities or interventions are planned and scheduled visits for patients and staff involving approved animals through a qualified therapy animal organization.

Animal handler teams are carefully selected and have been trained to participate in healthcare facility visits. Northwestern Medicine strives to ensure the program’s safety, health and training requirements promote the well-being of patients, staff and handler teams.

Yes, animal handler teams consist of a volunteer and their designated animal who have successfully completed an evaluation together by an approved animal therapy organization. Animals must be attended at all times by registered handler during visits. Volunteers should obtain registration/certification through an approved animal therapy organization prior to applying to Northwestern Medicine.

Documented benefits of Animal Assisted Activity visits for patients and staff may include:

  • Increased social interaction (Animal and handler)
  • Decreased use of pharmacological interventions by distraction, decreasing stress, pain, anxiety and depression
  • Improved strength and endurance
  • Increased motor movement
  • Improved motivation, stimulation and support
  • Improved cardiovascular health by lowering heart rate and pressure


Volunteer Services schedules and coordinates handler team visits. Visits will follow specific routines and last between 5-15 minutes. Handlers may be at the hospital for up to 2 hours conducting visits. Of course, this depends on your pet’s comfort and willingness to handle the demands of visits on a given day. The orientation and temperament/visit training sessions will prepare handlers for visiting. All handlers are required to complete visit log sheets to document their visits.

Yes, handler teams will be able to visit other participating Northwestern Medicine locations after completing an on-site orientation with Volunteer Services at each location.

You must be currently registered as a handler team through one of the approved organizations before applying to the NM program. If you have already obtained handler team registration/certification, please complete our online application. Volunteer Services will respond to your application within 30 days. Upon completion of the general volunteer onboarding requirements, handlers will also be required to complete an on-site orientation (without animal) and three visits with a designated staff member or mentor to complete the temperament evaluation and visit training.

Please understand that possession of registration does not automatically qualify a team to join the Northwestern Medicine program.

For more information, contact the campus you are interested in.

At all NM locations, with the exception of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, handler-dog teams must be certified by one of the three following organizations:

  • Alliance of Therapy Dogs
  • Pet Partners
  • Therapy Dogs International (TDI)

Northwestern Memorial Hospital works exclusively with volunteers from Chicago Canine Therapy Corps.