Volunteers with Cariad Pet Therapy take their therapy dogs into hospital and community premises, with remarkable results for patients and staff alike. The dogs love it too!
Helen’s dog Milo always liked to say ‘hello’ to people. Whilst attending regular dog training classes, it was suggested that Milo would make a good therapy dog.
Helen did some research, applied for a therapy dog assessment with Cariad Pet Therapy and was really pleased that he passed the assessment. She was excited albeit a little nervous to start visits.
‘When I first started visits, I relaxed when I saw how Milo was with people. It’s about trusting your dog, who leads the way. Just to see how people respond to him is special.’
THE DREAM TEAM
Before long she was accepting requests to visit hospitals, care homes and elderly people in their own homes.
‘Sometimes Milo opens the way for people to chat to you. He then just settles down while we talk. Its real teamwork!’
Helen and Milo visit Glangwili hospital on a regular basis and the staff as well as patients look forward to their visits. ‘The nurse’s joke that they know Milo’s name, but not mine,’ Helen said.
‘Milo is always up for it. As soon as we arrive and that red collar goes on, he’s ready. He would like to just keep going, but it is important to consider his welfare as visits can be tiring. It’s as though he takes all this emotion from people and absorbs it. I’m so proud of him.’
CARIAD PET THERAPY
Robert and Christine Thomas set up Cariad Pet Therapy in 2018 to support therapy dog volunteers more locally and to improve animal welfare standards in relation to therapy dogs.
‘Cariad Pet Therapy facilitates the magic connection of the human-animal bond by bringing together compassionate owners and their affiliative natured dogs with members of their community,’ Robert says. ‘This connection enables a feeling of calmness, joy, comfort and a sense of collectiveness which can be impactful on wellbeing and long lasting.’
Based in Haverfordwest, the organisation is active in 13 counties across Wales and works with all NHS Health Boards. Volunteers and dogs are clearly identifiable by their red branded clothing.
Dogs visit a range of wards including Intensive Care, Dementia, Mental Health (children, adults and older adults), Palliative, Stroke, Coronary Care, ENT (Ear, Nose & Throat), Surgical & Orthopaedic, Endoscopy, Frailty, Respiratory, vaccination centres and even ambulances as they wait outside hospitals.
Feedback from staff and volunteers suggests that therapy dog visits improve the mood of patients and staff and provide a sense of normality in what can be a stressful environment.
In Hywel Dda University Health Board, all patients can access ‘recovery through activity’ sessions on a psychiatric ward. An Occupational Therapist noted ‘When the therapy dog attended the groups there was an increase in participation by 100%. We know that recovery through activity improves mood in 70% of those completing an evaluation but the therapy dog improves mood in the case of a further 16% of patients.’
A volunteer on a dementia ward reported how patients’ ‘whole faces lit up as we walked in, and they couldn’t wait for their turn to stroke. It makes it all so worthwhile.’
THERAPY DOGS IN THE COMMUNITY
Therapy dogs are active in the community too. For example, a social prescribing therapy dog walking programme has been established in Rhondda Cynon Taff to support mental health. In Carmarthenshire, therapy dog home visits are available through social prescribing, to prevent loneliness in elderly people. Patients often report that these occasions are the highlight of their week.
THE BEST MEDICINE
A growing body of scientific evidence supports the view that human beings derive multiple health benefits from bonding with animal companions. These include improved cardiovascular health, reduced stress, decreased loneliness, anxiety and depression and improved social interaction.
As little as five minutes spent interacting with a therapy dog has been found to bring about reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Therapy dogs have also been found to boost levels of oxytocin – sometimes called the ‘love hormone’ for its positive influence on our emotional response and social behaviour, including empathy, trust and positive communication. So, it is easy to see how patients assisted by a therapy dog may be in a better state to take part in therapeutic sessions or to take in new learning.
Even in the face of serious illness and other challenges, opportunities to interact with a friendly canine companion can be an effective form of medicine.
DOGS ARE VOLUNTEERS TOO!
Volunteers like Helen are central to Cariad Pet Therapy. Their time, experience and dedication are highly valued. Essential training and safeguards are in place for and the volunteers are committed to improving the lives of others, while also advocating for their dog’s welfare.
Therapy dogs can be considered as involuntary participants. Volunteers take care to look out for their dog’s emotional experiences such as joy, or fear and respond accordingly.
Dogs’ suitability for the role is assessed at the outset against three main criteria: consent, etiquette and a natural inclination for friendly connection with people. Their willingness to participate, without reward or coercion, is monitored continually, to ensure that they are taking part with tacit but clear consent. When this is no longer the case they can take ‘time off’ or retire.
The dogs and the clients should both gain something from each visit. There is a mutual benefit in the arrangement.
Cariad Pet Therapy were winners of the ‘Wellbeing in Wales’ award at last year’s Welsh Charity Awards. Helen, and Milo too, will be attending as guests at the NHS 75-year anniversary service to be held in Ely on 4 July 2023, along with volunteers from other nominees in the category.
Nominations for this year’s Welsh Charity Awards are currently open until 5 pm, 26 June 2023.
Case study by Helpforce Cymru. Helpforce is working with Third Sector Support Wales (WCVA and 19 CVCs), Welsh Government and other partners to develop the potential of volunteering to support health and social care services in Wales.
The Helpforce page on our website includes links to recent articles, blogs and case stories.