Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? At 12 years old, Suzie has started her first appointments for Pets As Therapy – and I’m getting on a bit too!
For those of you who are not familiar with this excellent charity, what happens is that Suzie and I go together to a residential care home to visit with their elderly residents. In our case it is a small home, with only a handful of residents but across the country similar visiting pairs of owner and pet, either dog or cat, are carrying out this rewarding activity, in establishments of all shapes and sizes.
There are therapy teams visiting children’s hospices, hospital wards, schools – the list goes on. Each owner and their pet spreads a little bit of animal magic (and arguably emotional healing) wherever they go!
For me the benefits are threefold: firstly it is what I promised I would do in memory of my grandmother who was a keen animal lover and also spent some time in a care home. Secondly I know that Suzie gets bored quite easily and although she is older, so can’t cope with masses of long walks, I need to do something that enriches her life. Thirdly the most important reason is that the elderly people we visit have something else in their days, that I hope they look forward to, and I know they enjoy and benefit from them. It might be the simple pleasure of a conversation with someone from outside the home, smiling when Suzie does something sweet, the soft physical contact of another living creature or just seeing something new – mission accomplished.
I would say many rehabilitated greyhounds would be suitable for this role. Suzie is impeccably behaved as you can imagine: quiet, gentle, clam and stands peacefully while people stroke her, chat and drink tea; merely rolling her eyes around the room at everything she can see. She always takes treats with soft lips and encouragingly touches hands with her long wet nose, in the hopes of eliciting more of the same! She never jumps up or bounces too much and she is also very good at going up carpeted stairs (which takes many greyhounds time to master) and so is able to go into rooms where residents are unable or less likely to come downstairs. Poking her very long nose around every door (once invited) she has accepted long strokes and kisses from a gentleman resident and a saucer of milk from a lady. We all found it hilarious watching what must be one of the longest and pinkest tongues in the animal world, stick to every inch of the saucer! Luckily Suzie is clever enough to know only to do this when invited and of course I never invite this at home. However, particularly with such an old and biddable dog, I make exceptions with clear boundaries, if it delights the residents I meet.
She also makes the residents laugh doing other things like watching the goldfish swimming around in their pond. Head tilted this way and that, ears up (as far as they will go!) and eyes fixed on the movement. I think laughter is absolutely critical in anybody’s life and these kinds of ice breakers seem to make even the quiet residents want to know everything about her, and to tell me all about the pets they have had over the years. We have had conversations about homes and careers all round the world, about greyhound races, hobbies the residents used to do more of, like running, and lots about animals of course. Fascinating people, with equally fascinating stories and just wonderful to be part of bringing it all vividly back.
So if you would like to do the same with your pet dog or cat, I would highly recommend it and advise you to visit the Pets As Therapy website for further details on how to become a visiting team. Suzie and I had to be assessed first of course to make sure we were suitable. Checks are carried out on the animal’s basic health, personality and behaviour. They also ask that you demonstrate they can be moved out of the way quickly and without fuss, as in hospital wards and homes sometimes this is necessary. They also checked that they are not unduly concerned by loud and sudden noises.
If you do become a team of course you still have to always bear the animal’s welfare in mind as well as that of people around you. For example Suzie is very frightened of thunder and so if there happened to be a storm at the same time as my planned visit, I would have to rearrange. Normally though it is important to make a regular arrangement and stick to it. You also get to wear a snazzy yellow shirt and ID badge to make you easy to identify and of course for safeguarding reasons. Suzie also has a smart new martingale collar (as they cannot wear harnesses for fear of hands getting caught up) along with a Pets As Therapy lead and ID tag to make her official. It’s quite a responsibility, but so rewarding.
This evening we are returning for our next booked in visit and I am looking forward to chatting to some of the residents I didn’t see last time and picking up where we left of with the ones I did. All I need to do now is rouse the hound from her customary sleeping pose, give her a brush over and I think I better get some treats ready!