Pets As Therapy

Pets As Therapy provides dogs (and cats) that visit people in a wide range of venues. The charity's website (click the logo) is the place for information about the charity, how you can become a Pets As Therapy handler and your dog a Pets As Therapy dog; if there is any discrepancy between information here and their website, the latter takes precedence.

This is our experience of Pets As Therapy visits; yours will be different, but just as valuable to and appreciated by the people you visit, and just as much fun.

Let me say right at the start; visiting the people we do is very rewarding; I enjoy it, the dogs enjoy it, and the people we visit enjoy it. I wholeheartedly recommend becoming a Pets As Therapy handler and your dog a Pets As Therapy dog.

We got involved when a friend of ours who was a volunteer suggested that The Beasts would makes a good P.A.T. dogs (more on what makes a good P.A.T. dog in a bit). So we had a look and decided that we'd like to get involved. When I contacted Pets As Therapy they asked what type of dog I had (they now know it is dogs plural). "Greyhounds and lurchers" I said. If it had been possible to bite my arm off up to my elbow down the phone my arm would have been bitten. They are highly regarded by Pets As Therapy for two reasons. firstly their temperament and love of people; secondly, greyhounds are big dogs and that means they can be reached by someone who is bed ridden or in a wheelchair. Small dogs are good too as they can be picked up and put on the person's lap, but medium size dogs are too big to pick up and too small to be reached.


For You

The main requirement from you is time. Your visits will become an integral part of peoples lives and hugely looked forward to. It is therefore really important that you can commit to doing those visits and I personally feel it is better to commit visiting less often (say once a month) and do the visits than say that you'll do more only to find it is too much and stop.

You will need to provide two character references to the charity and some venues may require that you are DBS (previously CRB) checked. Because we visit vulnerable people I was; St. Andrew's pay for mine, but check whether this is the case for you venue.

You need somewhere to visit. Often the area co-ordinator will have a list venues that have requested a dog to visit, but you may have a particular venue in mind or may have to find one.

And there is an annual fee for being a volunteer – £19 or £29 for joint applications at the time of writing.

For Your Dog

Being a Pets As Therapy dog is not for every dog  and to ensure the dog is right for the role and the role is right for the dog there are a few conditions to be met. Your dog:

  • must have been with you for at least 6 months and be at least 9 months old
  • must be healthy. P.A.T. visits do take quite a bit out of the dogs
  • must be fully vaccinated or homoeopathically protected, and wormed and protected against fleas
  • must have a good temperament. The dog is assessed with you for this; if your partner wants to get involved as well that is a separate assessment.

What Makes a Good Pets As Therapy Dog?

This is my personal view based on my experience and where we visit; Pets As Therapy and other handlers may have different criteria.

  • A love of life and people. The Beasts happy demeanour is obvious to all that meet them.
  • Happy to approach and be approached by people. It depends on where you visit, but some of the people we see have motor control and speech difficulties and/or can not express themselves well. This means that some people will not initiate contact with the dogs; the best dogs will make that initial contact. Other people will initiate the contact but do so clumsily and/or noisily. To some dogs this may be threatening simply because the person does not behave in a way that the dog has encountered before (bit like some humans in that regard). Once the dogs realise such people are not a threat very close bonds are often formed (bit like some humans in that regard too).
  • Happy to interact with people on their terms. This kind of follows on from the previous point and Lilly is a good case here. We visit some young ladies; they play with Lilly and Lilly plays with them in full on Lurcher mode; the girls reckon that if she was human she'd be in there with them. The next ward we visit is for older gentlemen with dementia; without me having trained her or told her anything, Lilly tones it right down and will just stand and look at them until she gets a stroke.

The Assessment

Every dog/handler combination has to go through the assessment. Some key points to the assessment are:

  • The dog should be clean and well groomed. We're not talking show quality here, but the plan is to take your dog to see people and s/he should be at the very least "smart casual". If Fido turns up with a smelly, matted coat it"s not exactly the right impression.
  • The dog should be up for it without being "in your face". If you have drag Fido through the door perhaps s/he's not Pets As Therapy material; conversely, if you have to hang for dear life to prevent murder and mayhem perhaps Fido's not quite ready yet. Alert, eager to meet new people and affectionate towards them with all four paws on the ground is perfect.
  • The dog should not snatch to get a treat, particularly if it is being held such that it is not accessible. The assessor will hold a treat in a fist; a sniff and a nuzzle is fine, teeth are not. And when the treat is offered it should be taken in such a way that the assessor is in possession of the same number of fingers they started with.
  • Depending on where you visit, not everyone will perhaps know how or be able to pet a dog gently (they may have an illness that has diminished their co-ordination) and so the dog is checked to make sure it will tolerate a degree of rough handling. Also, you may need to pull the dog to you and hold it firmly if you need to get out of the way quickly for any reason; the dog must not resist this.
  • The dog must react well to strange situations. All The Beasts assessments are done at a local dog club and this part usually consists of joining a class and walking counter to the direction of the class and not getting phased when they change direction or do anything else, like a sit for example.
  • But apparently where most dogs fail is the sudden noise test. This is to simulate a dropped walking stick, knocked over walking frame, or similar. The test is a cake tin, tray, or some such dropped so it clatters on the floor behind (but a distance from) the dog. The dog can startle and/or be wary but must not try to bolt; a startled terrified dog running amuck is not a good thing. You can calm the dog but it must take notice. Because I use steel feeding bowls, to a hound every Beast has gone to investigate as at home a clatter usually means I have dropped food on the floor.

It perhaps reads as being more onerous than it is in reality. You know your dog and if they are well behaved and calm then they'll almost certainly breeze through the assessment.

Our Visits

We visit St. Andrew's in Northampton every week on Saturday afternoons. We visit a total of eight wards; four one week, four the next, so we see everyone once a fortnight.

Pat, the lady that did our initial P.A.T. assessments asked if I'd sorted out anywhere to visit. When I said I hadn't she asked if I'd thought about St. Andrew's (she visits there too). She told me that it's not everyone's cup of tea. The hospital looks after people with a wide range of illnesses; dementia, Huntington's Disease, acquired brain injuries (injuries that that you or I might get from a car accident, falling of a ladder, or even tripping and bashing your head), recovering drug addicts, people who self harm, people who have been abused, people who have abused, … Most service users are on locked wards and most of those have "air locks" i.e. you go through one door that needs to be shut before the next can be opened to enter or exit the ward so that there is always a locked door between the ward and the outside world. There are some where things like phones, keys, coins, pens, etc. are not allowed through the airlock. The upshot of this is that if anything happens there is nowhere to run too. It perhaps sounds like we take our lives in our hands and paws every time we visit, but nothing could be further from the truth. In all the time that I have been visiting (a few years now) we have never had to run anywhere; others who have been visiting much longer haven't either. We have to be let on to wards and if a ward is unsettled that day the staff say so and we don't visit.

The reality of visiting people in St. Andrew's is that they love The Beasts and The Beasts love them. Because I have more than one dog that visits people often pick a favourite. Mack was one lady's out and out favourite to the point that she referred to him as "My dog" and wanted photos of him and her together that she could show her daughter. We managed to get permission to take the photos (for obvious reasons photography in the hospital and its environs is strictly prohibited without prior permission) and she was delighted with the results. When Mack died she was really upset; she'd lost "her" dog. Similarly, when Rosie couldn't visit after her operation to remove a tumour from her back leg I had to give regular status updates on how she was doing; on her return to visiting it was like she'd come home.

One guy who looks like a right hard case told Rosie each year that he would miss her over Christmas. He actually saw her just as often as normal as we visit over Christmas and New Year, but she meant something special to him and I think it shows what The Beasts come to mean to the people we visit.

Do The Beasts Enjoy It?

Yes, no doubt about that. If they didn't I wouldn't make them do it and indeed not all of The Beastly Beasts are or have been Pets As Therapy dogs because they wouldn't. How do I know they enjoy it? Usually The Beasts are pretty good on the lead, but they drag me through the door to reception at St. Andrew's; they are really up for it.

We visit for up to 2 hours and it is quite intensive for them; I can tell the difference between those that have and have not visited that day come the evening. It is important to make sure your dog does not get over exerted and tired; if they do they will not give their best to the people you visit.

Do I Enjoy It?

If I didn't I wouldn't do it. Some of the people we visit become friends and I miss them when they leave (some rejoin the community, some move to other hospitals to be closer to family, and sadly some die). We also make friends with the staff; in fact sometimes I think we provide them with as much therapy as we do the service users.

I feel we have a special and in many ways privileged place in peoples lives. We bring enjoyment, we are from the outside – the real world; we come to the hospital but we are not of the hospital and do not represent any kind of authority (which staff do, no matter how nice they are – and the staff at St. Andrew's are brilliant; I mean really brilliant). So we, for want of a better way of putting it, bring a bit of normality to peoples lives; I like to think that our visits help them have a slightly nicer time while at St. Andrew's and maybe even help those that will leave get ready for that day (Teaser: we'll have more to say about that very soon).

Is It Worth It?

Does visiting people actually do any good? Unequivocally, yes it does.

Research shows that stroking an animal releases endorphins in the brain of both the person and the animal. This is both calming and therapeutic in itself. Anecdotal evidence and other research suggests that happy people and people with something to look forward to get better faster or don't deteriorate as fast in the case of degenerative diseases.

But while research is all well and good, there is one thing that conclusively proves to me how worthwhile it is on every visit; the smiles that appear on peoples faces when the dogs walk in the room.

Staff clearly think they make a difference too. The Beasts were specifically asked for to visit one young lass (I'll call her C) who loves dogs. Apparently she was in a bad place emotionally and needed something to cheer her up and the staff knew of The Beasts and thought that they would be just the job. What they didn't know was that Lilly had just turned up. Although she was too young to be an official P.A.T. dog, I figured a puppy in your face is good therapy so decided to break the rules. If I get a slapped wrist now that this is in the public domain, so be it; I was right. C loved Lilly and Lilly loved C as soon as they met. The pair now have a special bond and C is one of two people in the whole world that get a special Lilly greeting (the other is Mark who rescued her).

And they make a measurable difference. On one ward for guys with dementia I am often told by staff that our visits is when the guys are happiest; we are there for just 20 mins or so every two weeks. Mack got a guy on another ward that was all but catatonic to both stroke him and talk to him. When the guy first stroked Mack the staff were literally in tears; Mack had got through where professionals hadn't. One lady we visit  (T) has Huntington's Disease, this causes sufferers loose motor control and speech but, in the early stages at least, not understanding. We have known T from when we started visiting and her deterioration is all too obvious, but staff tell me that her speech is best when we visit; she loves The Beasts so much she makes the extra effort to communicate.

Another P.A.T. dog handler at St. Andrew's even got involved in service user's therapy. The service user would not talk to the doctor or anyone else, but they talked to the dog, even when people were in the room. Thanks to the dog they received the therapy and treatment they needed.

Go Do It

As I said earlier, I wholeheartedly recommend becoming a Pets As Therapy handler and your dog a Pets As Therapy dog. Why? Just taking where I visit; some of the people we visit are there for the long term, many until they die. Many are there through no fault of their own, many have or had dogs of their own and miss them. I would like to think that if I ever need the services St. Andrew's provides that someone would bring their dog to see me, and so it only right I take mine to see people. You can translate those sentiments to residential homes for the elderly, hospices, etc. etc.

It makes a huge difference to people and it's probably one of the most rewarding things you will ever do in your life.