SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

Outreach Therapy Pets – pets helping people

It’s a fine day in March, 2014. Wearing his work uniform of a white bandana, Scruffy waits patiently by the front door.

He’s got a big afternoon ahead of him. Today, with his owner Ann, he is visiting George*, a patient at the local hospital. George is prone to agitation and aggressive outbursts, but on days when Scruffy visits, he is calmer and his mood improves. Every week, Scruffy visits George and spends quality time with him. He and George talk with one another, they cuddle and sometimes they go for walks together. On other days they just sit in companionable silence, but whatever they do together, at the end of the day George always has a smile on his face, and Scruffy always leaves feeling good that he’s been able to help his friend George.

Fast-forward four years and Scruffy is still doing his best to help people like George.

Scruffy is just one of the 170 therapy pets volunteering with the SPCA as part of the Outreach Therapy Pets programme. It aims to bring joy and comfort to people in rest homes, hospitals, and mental health wards. The programme, which is a joint partnership between St. John’s and the SPCA, was born 30 years ago from the idea that pet therapy can help people in institutions where they may feel isolated and lonely.

The Outreach Therapy Pets programme takes a number of forms. It may see a volunteer and their pet visiting someone in a rehab ward to practice walking together, a visit to an older lady in a rest home who’s missing her animal at home, or some quality time with someone with depression who doesn’t want to see anyone else. Nikki, a blue heeler border collie cross, and her owner visited a school weekly to work with a young girl who has anxiety. “She really enjoyed this time together and looked forward to Wednesdays each week,” says the child’s mum. “I feel this outreach therapy is so valuable in helping children such as mine to develop confidence and in her case manage her anxiety. My daughter really loves Nikki and took real pleasure in reading to her.”

The service is free and run by staff at the SPCA. All the visitors are volunteers, ranging between late teens and people in their 80s, from a wide range of backgrounds.

Sharing the joy

Most of the animals in the programme are dogs, ranging from Chihuahuas to Irish Woolfhounds (some are ex-SPCA dogs!), but there are also a few other species such as cats, and even miniature ponies!

SPCA Outreach Coordinator Karina Ledwos says the volunteers are wonderful ambassadors, encouraging people to treat animals with kindness and respect. “They’re great role models to the people they visit,” she explains. “When the residents experience the strong bond between animals and people, it makes them think about the way animals are treated. Not only are they great educators, our volunteers are such caring and empathetic people. They’re in the programme because they want to give back. They love sharing the joy their animal gives them with others.”

Health research in New Zealand and overseas shows that many people show great improvement in their health and attitude through interacting with visiting animals.

The human-animal bond

Some of the positive effects include a decrease in blood pressure, speech and language motivation, decrease in depression and anxiety, pain management, increased motivation and purpose, improving self-acceptance and self-worth, and memory stimulation. A furry head laid on a knee, someone to listen, the natural affection that most dogs have for people, all these actions help people to feel happy and comforted.

Karina Ledwos, Outreach Coordinator, says she loves seeing how the programme has a positive effect. “The visits create nice opportunities for social interactions with people who might not otherwise interact with one another, such as patients in a mental health ward. When there’s a dog visiting, everyone will gather in the same area, they’ll strike up conversation, and there’s a really great atmosphere.

“I’ve also heard about dogs managing to help people in ways that staff may struggle with. The dogs can motivate people to get up and get dressed and go outside for a walk with the dog, and these are people who otherwise would lack motivation. You also hear about visits from the animals motivating people to speak after an accident, who may not have spoken before.”

“There’s just something about the comforting, calm, non-judgmental presence of a dog. The way dogs look at you, lean against you, they just have this ability to bring someone out of their shell and bond with them. Animals forge a deep connection, and you can often feel that connection immediately. It’s really special.”

It’s not just people who enjoy the programme!

Karina stresses the importance of both parties enjoying the visits. “We like to make sure that the animals are happy and like the visits. So we assess the dogs’ obedience, sociability, and confidence around strangers in different environments. We’re looking for dogs who are relaxed and happy, not dogs who are fearful or stressed,” she explains.

“The dogs who do make it into the programme absolutely love it! They’re given a ‘work uniform’ – a white Outreach Therapy Pets-branded bandana – and when that bandana comes out, they know it’s work time and their tails start wagging! As soon as the bandana is put on, the dogs enter ‘work-mode’ and run to the car in excitement, ready to start their shift.”

Jax is a Yorkshire terrier cross who, along with owner Aimee, regularly visits a young woman with a disability, Maxine.

Jax’s story

They first met at an event the Outreach Therapy team organised for a social group that the young woman is part of. “The two had an immediate connection and she absolutely loved their contact,” explains Karina. “I got a phone call from the young woman’s social worker the following week. She said that the young woman was so delighted with the visit and had thought and spoke of little else. The social worker asked: “if one visit could create such an impact on her mood, excitement and motivation, what might regular visits do for her?”

An arrangement was set up and Jax now visits Maxine regularly. Maxine even invited Jax and Aimee to her birthday party recently. “She just adores him and showers him with affection,” says Jax’s mum Aimee. “Turns out she is an awesome artist and Jax is her muse! She paints beautiful portraits of him. I am so happy to visit there each week – I know it definitely makes Maxine happy and all the staff treat Jax like a little prince.”

Merlin was a lovely Samoyed who sadly passed away last year. Although he has passed, his memory lives on in the hearts of those he touched during his time as an Outreach Therapy Pet.

Merlin’s story

His owner says Merlin loved his role as a therapy dog and could be patted for hours, trotting happily from person to person.

“One very special occasion about 10 years ago we visited the Stroke Club and Merlin made a beeline for a gentleman in his 50s who was in a wheelchair at a table with family members and supporters rather than participating in the various events in the hall,” says Merlin’s owner. “This gentleman had unfortunately only regained four words in his vocabulary following five years of speech therapy but he immediately connected with Merlin, as Merlin sat beside him and rested his head in his lap. The gentleman stroked Merlin’s head as I chatted away.

“Both Merlin and I took great pleasure in seeing the smile on this gentleman’s face but knew we needed to move around the room to take time with other people. As we stood to leave, the gentleman said, “bye Merlin”. The whole table stopped their chatter and there were gasps and tears as the man again repeated: “bye Merlin”. I’ll always remember that moment.”

Find out more about the Outreach Therapy Pets programme.

*Please note, George’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.

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