Therapaws: Bringing happiness to the Hospice with therapy dogs

In Homer’s Odyssey, written 2,800 years ago, Odysseus returns home from Troy after ten years away to find only one person or animal who recognises him: his faithful dog Argos. It is a poignant illustration that dogs have been man’s best friend for millennia.

Today, dogs and pets more generally, are being used therapeutically to help improve people’s wellbeing and Therapaws is just one such programme doing amazing work in this area. An outreach programme from animal welfare charity Mayhew, Therapaws has a team of volunteers who take their dogs into hospitals, mental health centres, SEN schools, care homes and hospices to help improve the quality of life for those interacting with the animal.

One of these fabulous volunteers is Zoe Macdonald, who manages to fit in time to visit St John’s Hospice and the Day Centre in-between her busy schedule running dog training and walking business Woofs in the Wood. Once every two weeks, Zoe visits the hospice with another volunteer called Lisa. Zoe brings one of her client’s dogs, a 14-year-old cocker spaniel called Juliet and Lisa brings her five-year-old pug called Flora.

Therapaws volunteer, Zoe with 14-year-old cocker spaniel, Juliet.

Before dogs are allowed onto the programme they need to be assessed by a behaviourist at Mayhew to ensure they are suitable for the job which, of course, both Juliet and Flora passed with flying colours! In understanding what type of dog is suitable for this role, Zoe says, “They’ve got to like meeting people – to actively go up to those they don’t know and be happily petted by them. In addition, they must show a level of trained behaviour, e,g, not pulling you all over the place on the lead. They have to be calm but still have personality and they can’t get freaked out by sudden noises.”

The dogs also need to be fairly tolerant of people who might not know how to interact with them. Zoe says, “It has to be a dog that feels quite comfortable to be cuddled and stroked in a way it might not be used to. Clearly a dog that might turn around and bite you if you stroked its ears, say, would not be a suitable therapy dog.”

When Zoe visits the Hospice she usually starts at the Day Centre. She says, “I know many of the patients quite well because a lot of them are long term but I alternate every other Tuesday and Thursday so the dogs can meet the most number of different patients as possible. Essentially, I wander around the room and whoever wants to have a chat with me or say hello to the dogs can do so. The thing about dogs is that they’re a real ice breaker. Some people don’t necessarily want to touch the dog and they may not even like dogs particularly but they’re happy to ask what we do and then that starts the conversation and that’s just as important.”

Flora the Pug, sits besides a patient in the Inpatient Unit as they have their feet massaged.

Zoe will then visit the Hospice, going from room to room to see if anyone would like a chat or pet the dogs. She says, “I used to take a golden retriever but the small ones can sit up on the beds which most patients quite like as they can pet the dogs while they chat with us. We also usually take pictures on their phones so they can share with their loved ones.”

Often, when patients come back to the Hospice for respite care or treatment the dogs will remember them. Zoe says, “Sometimes the dogs actually pull us to the rooms of the people they know. There was one patient whose sister was usually there when we visited and she would do reiki on the dogs. They would run to the room and jump up on the bed and we would have to stay there for an extra 30 minutes because the dogs refused to leave!”

When Zoe and Lisa take Juliet and Flora, there is a bit of a pecking order based on age and experience. “Juliet is really calm so is ideal for anyone who is a little bit nervous with dogs because she will literally sit there and won’t move until I lift her down – she just wants to sit on the bed and be cuddled. Flora, the pug, is a little more excitable and as a result is really good with visiting families. But if Juliet is sitting on the bed getting petted Flora will want her turn and she’s learnt she can only go up if she follows Juliet’s lead and remains incredibly calm.”

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