The dogs that change lives #1 – Pets As Therapy

If you live in the UK, you will have seen (or at least I hope you will have) ITV’s Me and My Guide DogFollowing the lives of ten puppies as they train to become guide dogs, the programme highlighted just how amazing these animals truly are.

Now I know this is a slight change for SWHH, but it is a subject matter that is extremely close to my heart, and hey, this is my lil corner of the internet, so I’m gonna write about it.

By now you know that I prefer animals to people, so much so that for my university dissertation, I chose to write my 10,000 words on just how these incredible four-legged creatures change lives.

I pretty much travelled up and down England to interview and see the dogs that change lives back in 2011 and here is the first story:

Bernard Perry & Sam – Pets As Therapy

Bernard Perry & Sam - Pets As Therapy

Jet, the flat-coated retriever may have won Best in Show at Crufts 2011, but there is another flat-coat winning the affections of the people across Staffordshire.

Sam, a ten-year-old black flat-coated retriever, is a registered Pets As Therapy (PAT) dog, who along with his owner Bernard Perry, has been bringing happiness to the residents and workers at Ashcroft Hollow Nursing Home, in Stafford, for over six years.

Founded in 1983, Pets As Therapy provides therapeutic visits to a variety of establishments including hospitals, nursing homes and special needs schools, by volunteers with their own friendly, temperament-tested dogs and cats.

Bernard, aged 67, from Silverthorn Way, Stafford, says: “It’s a nice feeling doing something positive. The interaction with the residents and seeing their reaction to Sam is very rewarding. It’s a wonderful job.

“My wife Kate registered with PAT first with our other retriever Cassie, but because she was teaching, there were only certain times she could do visitations, so I joined with Sam.”

Retired bus drive Bernard and Sam visit the nursing home once a fortnight, helping to bring everyday life closer to those in care, along with all the happy associations of home comforts.

He says: “The visit matters so much to the residents and the staff, they look forward to seeing Sam, but it’s not just about the dog, it’s about the people.

“On our first visit we met a lady who interacted with Sam straight away, wanting to know all about him, what colour he was, what breed, and she remembers it all.

“It gives her a picture in her mind and makes a connection between them. She can’t walk, is blind and partially deaf. The staff told me afterwards that she also rarely speaks unless Sam and I are visiting.”

Elderly residents often have to leave their own pets behind and the constant companionship of an animal that gives unconditional love is one of the most missed aspects of their lives. Having a visiting PAT dog can make that loss seem bearable.

Bernard says: “Sam knows what he’s doing when he’s on a visit. Some of the residents can’t always reach him so he will instinctively lean towards them so they can pet him.”

Pam Williams, matron manager of Ashcroft Hollow, says: “We love having Sam and Bernard come to visit us. The staff and I love to sneak Sam a few treats and give him a great big fuss.

“It’s also a wonderful sight to see how the residents react to him. He really brightens up their day.”

Pets As Therapy

Since becoming involved with Pets As Therapy, Bernard has taken on the role of coordinator for the Staffordshire area, matching volunteers to places in need of PAT animal visits.

“There are 120 volunteers in Staffordshire, with establishments waiting for dogs. My job is to find a volunteer who lives near each location,” he says.

“If there isn’t a close enough volunteer for any of the places on the waiting list, Sam and I will go just so they can experience a visit until someone becomes available – together, we’ve been all over Staffordshire.”

To become a registered PAT volunteer, pets and their owners have to be assessed on a number of things such as the temperament of the animal and the control the owner has over them.

Bernard says: “PAT volunteers have to be sociable too. I used to be nervous of people and quite shy, but being a part of the charity and going on visits has definitely brought me out of my shell.”

Volunteers and their pets can visit as many places as they want to. As well as Ashcroft Hollow, Sam and Bernard also visit Sister Dora’s Care Home in Stafford on Pets As Therapy duty.

He says: “Retired volunteers can give as much time as they want. The majority of our volunteers have jobs but do their visits at the weekends or in the evenings – it’s a huge commitment but one that makes a big difference.”

Research has shown that dogs help to promote social interaction in older people, especially those who feel isolated or are withdrawn, helping to open them up and let the barriers down.

“I also hold talks on the interaction between humans and animals and the benefits of them,” Bernard says. “People don’t realise the significance a dog can have – Sam is my my mate not a dog, he’s a friend.”

Over the years, dogs have received bad press with stories of ‘dangerous dogs’ attacking strangers and children, but Bernard and Pets As Therapy don’t discriminate against breeds.

He says: “We have all types of breeds, even those considered to be ‘dangerous dogs’ as they are not dangerous because of their breed, but because of how they are trained and brought up.

“Dogs get a bad press because of the bad press. People won’t hear about the Staffordshire bull who visits a nursing home and brings happiness to its residents, but they should.”

There are over 4,500 active PAT dogs at work in the UK who bring hope, comfort and happiness to the 130,000 people, both old and young, that they visit – there just isn’t a trophy to show it.