We’ve all experienced doting strangers stopping to pet and admire your beautiful Samoyed. They are initially drawn by the friendly smile and twinkling eyes and find themselves stopping for a long cuddle when they realise the gorgeous fluffy dog is actually just as affectionate and loving as she looks.
The idea of doing therapy work with Svetlana first occurred to me when she was a little pup. We had been stopped in the street by an elderly lady who had fallen in love with her, and after a long cuddle tore herself away to go home, thanking Svetlana for “making an old lady’s day.” I was very touched by this. Our pup brought love and joy to our lives everyday, and clearly she did the same to many others she met. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could extend that to people who really need it? There are a lot of elderly in care homes who don’t really experience much love and connection anymore, or who may have had dogs all their lives but can no longer keep one due to their health and age.
So we contacted the Pets as Therapy organisation to find out how Svetlana could get involved. Your dog needs to be at least 9 months of age, and you need to have had her for at least 6 months. Apart from the obvious good temperament with people and children, there are some fairly strict standards of behaviour PAT dogs must comply with for example, the dog must not jump up to greet people. A lot of the people we visit with Svetlana are elderly and frail and could be easily knocked over. Also, licking, pawing and mouthing are also a no-no, no matter how gentle, this is for hygiene reasons but also older people’s skin is a lot more fragile than that of a younger person and this will avoid accidentally scratching or ripping skin. The PAT scheme requires up to date vaccinations and annual boosters – homeopathic vaccinations are accepted as well as traditional vaccines.
If you are interested in your dog becoming a PAT dog then good socialisation with people and dogs right from puppy hood is a good thing. Also doing undertaking the KC Good Citizen Scheme training is also worth it as it encourages the types of behaviour expected under the PAT scheme. We have worked on keeping greetings calm since Svetlana was very young, and she attends the Kennel Club Good Citizen obedience scheme where she has learnt not to jump up. A secure, confident dog makes ideal PAT material, and socialisation as a youngster is key to achieve this.
We waited until Svetlana was a year old before we obtained a Pets as Therapy application form from their website. We were quickly emailed our application reference number, an application form and details of our local PAT co-ordinator. The PAT co-ordinator then supplied us a list of local PAT assessors, and gave us the choice of which one to call. We arranged for Svetlana’s assessment to be held at a local vet’s surgery. The key here is to pick the venue which will give your dog the best chance of success.
You need to take your application form and reference number with us , and of course, Svetlana, to the assessment. The assessment is not just for your dog but for you as well as only the person who has handled the dog during the assessment is permitted to handle on PAT visits. The assessment begins with an informal chat on the PAT scheme in general, my attitude towards its goals and why we decided to get involved.
During the discussion it is important that the dog stays calm and waits. The assessor then gave Svetlana a rough cuddle – tugged a bit at her ears, hugged her around the neck and patted her head firmly. Svetlana reacted to all of this calmly with a wagging tail. Jumping, licking and mouthing are no nos during this type of handling. The assessor needs to be confident that your dog will take all manner of handling calmly and welcome affection. The dog also needs to be able to take treats gently – no grabbing, lunging and with minimal tooth contact. You are also required to demonstrate that your dog can walk well on a loose lead. No haltis or harnesses are permitted. The assessment also involved dropping a steel instrument into a bucket with a very loud clang which will demonstrate also that your dog is not fearful or reactive to sudden, loud noises – as are to be expected in care homes.
In addition you have to be able to demonstrate that you can restrain and control my dog safely and effectively. In my case I put an arm around her shoulder, pulling her to me and holding her firmly by the collar. The dog must not wriggle, mouth or resist. The aim is to demonstrate that you have full control over your dog if necessary.
Finally, you will need to take a brush with you as you have to demonstrate that you can groom your dog. This is obviously second nature to most Sammy owners! The assessor will view a healthy, fit, well groomed dog as a sign of responsible pet ownership, which is important to the scheme.
As you may have guessed, the assessment is really aimed at determining whether you have a calm, good natured dog and a good bond with your pet.
EXPERIENCES WITH PAT WORK
So far, we have visited a local dementia care home with Svetlana and she has become very popular there. People recognise her and are delighted to see her, and she loves the fuss they make of her. You will play all sorts of roles as PAT volunteer – sometimes you will just be a largely ignored extension of the dog, and at other times people will want to have a conversation with you and be glad for your company. While there are no rules on how often you must visit, it is worth going regularly so people can build a relationship with their visiting PAT dog.
There are obviously a few people who are indifferent to dogs or even scared of them, and it is worth keeping an eye out accordingly. Also keep an eye out for the well meaning few who want to feed your dog chocolate!
One thing to remember above all is to make sure your dog enjoys it too. If your dog starts to look weary or too hot, retreats to a corner or starts panting, it’s time to wrap it up and go home. Make sure there is enough water available and that you can take breaks whenever you need to.
We are also considering the Read2 scheme, which involves a PAT dog visiting a local school and being read to by children with a view to improving literacy skills. We have heard some very touching stories about traumatised and stressed children being able to relax and read and speak around dogs, and grow in confidence where they had none before.