Fur goodness sake: The dogs bringing love and comfort to patients

Irish Therapy Dogs has been helping to spread puppy love around the country for past 10 years

 

Everyone knows that dogs are our best friends – loyal, loving and instinctively sensing when their owner is down and in need of some company.

But our canine companions can be just as kind and caring to complete strangers and, indeed, many are volunteered to visit old people’s homes, hospitals and rehabilitation wards to spread some of their unique calmness amongst people desperate for company or even a simple cuddle.

Irish Therapy Dogs has been helping to spread puppy love around the country for the past 10 years and its benefits are apparent to carers, people in residential homes and the dog owners themselves.

For the past nine years, the residents of Care Choice home in Trim, Co Meath, have reaped the benefits of having a weekly visit from some friendly pooches.

Director of nursing Gillian McDonald says the idea is very simple but the results are very beneficial. “For about nine years, we have had dogs visit every Friday afternoon – it used to be Wednesday’s as well but unfortunately that dog passed away,” she says. “They generally come during group activities and then also visit people in their rooms, where they can sit in someone’s lap or even get into the bed with them.

“The reaction from residents and their families are fab. One resident thought the dog was her own and it was lovely to see the interaction between them. Another family visits on a Friday just so they can see Mum with the dog – she was non-verbal but became so stimulated by the dog’s visit that this did not matter as the moment didn’t need words, you could just see the love and contentment on the lady’s face – she had some cuddly toys and used these to play with the dog whilst on her bed.”

There are currently more than 270 volunteer visiting teams from Irish Therapy Dogs making weekly visits to day-care centres, hospitals, hospices, nursing homes and retirement homes around the country.

George Bannister, with Bernie Ladd from Irish Therapy Dogs, and Elton.
George Bannister, with Bernie Ladd from Irish Therapy Dogs, and Elton.

Experience is wonderful

Irene O’Riordan visits St James’ Hospital in Dublin every week with her dog Ruby and says the experience is wonderful for everyone involved. “I have set aside two hours every week where Ruby and I visit stroke patients,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see the reaction of people to her as they really look forward to it. Ruby had to be assessed beforehand to make sure her temperament was suitable but she is a very gentle dog and I can see the calming influence she has on people.

“Sometimes, people aren’t in great form when we visit but she always cheers them up and I have also seen a lasting effect on some people – even changes in their speech or just a more relaxed manner – it’s a very powerful thing.”

George Bannister agrees – the 83-year-old has been a nursing home resident for five years and says he really looks forward to the weekly doggie visit. “I think it’s an excellent idea,” he says. “We have a visit every Friday and I find it very relaxing – they are great company and provide us with unconditional love. I just like having the dog on my lap and enjoying the peaceful time – also I think they can read your mind and know what you are thinking.”

Helen Boyle has also been on the receiving end of canine affection – when she was housebound for almost a year, her grandson brought his golden retriever over every afternoon to keep her company, while he did jobs around the house.

“I had a bad fall which resulted in surgery and time spent in a wheelchair,” says the 79-year-old. “I had been very active all my life, so suddenly having to be sedentary was really upsetting – I couldn’t do anything for myself and even though I had plenty of visitors, I found it very difficult to be living alone and felt defenceless. Over the months, I became depressed, which was hindering my progress because I had no desire to get out of bed and do my exercises and I never left the house at all.

“My son visited all the time and was really good to me and then my grandson came one day with his dog, Alfie, when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself. The dog came into the room and just walked over and put his head in my lap for a stroke and I immediately felt so much better.”

Over the course of a few months, the young boy brought the dog to visit his grandmother every day and all could see the benefits.

“My son Sean saw how lovely Alfie was with me and without telling me the plan, he decided that the dog would accompany them on every visit,” says the Dublin woman. “I began to look forward to seeing Alfie as much as Sean and Jack, as he demanded nothing from me and would instinctively know that I needed cheering up.

‘Back on my feet’

“After a while, when the nurse had been to do physio, I would stay up and about so I could be ready for them all and it wasn’t long before I was on a crutch and then eventually back on my feet and taking little walks to the end of the road and back. I am getting better by the day now and I have no doubt that Alfie helped me to recover and when I’m completely better, I might even think about getting a little dog of my own – they are simply wonderful company.”

Chartered psychologist Peadar Maxwell agrees and says there are great benefits to spending time with animals – and dogs in particular.

“Dogs make great animal companions for many reasons – they are loyal, loving and devoted to us,” he says. “Some studies which have impressed health organisations indicate that dogs help us with mood regulation, with recovery from trauma or illness and even with developing tolerance to allergens. Other benefits are more obvious as they offer us company and increased rates of social interaction as well as opportunities to exercise more.”

The Wexford-based expert also says dogs can help people to feel better in themselves, even if they are not able to get any physical exercise.

“I am not sure exactly how dogs help us deal with emotional difficulties, but one way found in research is that when we spend time with or care for our dogs we produce oxytocin, a feel-good chemical which is linked to lower blood pressure,” he says. “Mostly though, dogs are our friends and companions and that is good for us all, whether we live alone or with others.”

Gillian McDonald of CareChoice nursing home in Trim agrees and says the canine visit is such a successful programme that all care homes should consider doing something similar.

“A lot of residents have to leave their pet at home when they come into a nursing home but at least this way they still have contact with an animal,” she says. “Here in Trim, we also invite a mini farm in yearly for all the animals to visit the residents and this is really great.”

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