‘Hello Harry,’ were Tony Garner’s first words in 13 months following a massive stroke – spoken to a friendly dog who put his paws on the bed rail.
Tony’s wife, Jean, admits she had a few tears as she hadn’t heard her husband speak in a very long time: Harry’s response was to jump on the bed, which in turn produced a good laugh from Tony.
Tony is a patient at Abbey Court Nursing Home at Bourne, one of the homes and hospitals that Helen Vaitkevicius and Sally Sneath visit as part of Pets As Therapy (PAT), accompanied by PAT Labradors Harry (who is strictly Labrador mixed with other traits) and Harriet.
Helen, who lives in Rutland Close, Spalding, with two-and-a-half-year-old Harriet, got involved in PAT about 18 months ago because her mother has vascular dementia and Helen wanted to “do something to give back”.
She explains: “When someone has dementia it’s hard to communicate with them and there was nothing of mum left really, but it was nice to get through to other people with the dogs. Dementia is something we don’t understand fully and not everybody is the same, but the dogs are definitely the key to it and they seem to unlock that isolation.
“Some of them hardly speak, but it helps them to unlock from what they have to live with and they talk about their past life, and how they had dogs when they were growing up. When we walk in their eyes light up and it helps the staff in a way, it helps their morale.”
Sally, of Cross Lane, West Pinchbeck, started using rescue dog Harry, who is about four, as a PAT dog more recently, partly because some years ago her late father suffered with dementia.
She says: “If I’d known about PAT dogs then I’d probably have got someone to visit my father with a dog because he was brought up on a farm.”
Dogs have to be assessed before becoming PAT dogs and both Harry and Harriet have the right, calm temperament, particularly when their special PAT coats are put on them.
“They know their job,” says Helen. “When they have their coats on they know what they have to do. They will go and greet people and they tend to go to people who need them. We have a lady in Abbey Court whose father was a gamekeeper and so she has had dogs all her life and the two dogs make a beeline for her and she adores them. It’s the highlight of her week and she has treats for them.”
Helen says the act of stroking or patting the dogs unlocks memories for the elderly, who will then share those memories, but Helen says the work has helped her too.
“It’s helped me come to terms with the loss of my mum, even before she has died, because you lose the person before they are really gone. It has helped that there are other people out there in a similar situation.”
Helen and Sally know that there are lots of other people in homes and hospitals who would benefit from a visit by a PAT dog, but say they need more volunteers to be able to do that, and it has to be the right partnership: someone with time to spare and a dog with the right temperament. To find out more about becoming a volunteer, contact Pets as Therapy on 01844 345445 or visit www.petsastherapy.org
Elsewhere in the country, volunteers take PAT dogs into special schools – something Helen and Sally would like to happen locally once more volunteers are on board – and some volunteers also take part in a Read to Dogs scheme, in which the reading confidence of schoolchildren is improved by reading to dogs.
Helen and Sally are organising a table top sale at Pinchbeck Village Hall on February 16 to raise money for Pets As Therapy to help raise funds to cover the cost of training new volunteers. Contact Helen on 01775 761795 for more information and to offer donations for the sale.