Golden retriever Fred is a PAT (Pets As Therapy) volunteer. Once a week, retired doctor Marian Watt* takes him to their local care home to visit animal lovers. Stroking Fred is a pleasure for him and emotionally healing for the residents.
A friend’s dog used to work for PAT and when he got too old to go to our local care home any more, I looked at Fred and thought he’d be wonderful in the role.
The importance of good dog trainingBefore Fred was accepted as a PAT dog, he had to be assessed to make sure he was suitable. The main thing was that Fred had to love being with people. PAT dogs have to be kind: they mustn’t jump up and need to be able to take treats gently and enjoy being stroked and petted.
We met the PAT assessor at a big garden centre, so she could see how Fred behaved in public. While we were walking along, she dropped something that made a loud bang and watched how he reacted. He stopped, turned round, then walked on. He was a good boy.
She also offered him food to see whether he could take it nicely. He took the food gently and wagged his tail.
There’s no specific training for PAT dogs as each dog is assessed on its behaviour and temperament, but Fred was already well behaved because we'd taken him to puppy training classes as soon as he was old enough. We've always worked really hard to make sure he has good manners. I don’t like dogs that jump up, particularly big dogs like Fred, because they can knock people over. It’s also nice to have a dog you can take wherever dogs are allowed, and we can take him anywhere.
Dog on dutyFred passed his PAT assessment when he was 11 months old and started working a few weeks later. Every Monday morning, after a walk around the block to work off some of Fred’s energy, we go to a residential home, where we visit six or seven residents in their rooms. Twice as many people as that want to see Fred, but he can’t possibly fit in 12 or 14 in one session, so they see him every other week.
It's recognised that PAT dogs find the work tiring and at first, he was exhausted when he got home and would sleep for hours. Now he’s five, he still has a snooze after work, but he doesn’t seem as worn out as he used to be.
As soon as Fred sees his yellow PAT coat, he knows he’s going to work. We spend 20 minutes or so with each person, but I deliberately don’t time our visits. I don’t want the residents to see me looking at my watch.
Some of them don’t leave their rooms very often. Others do get out and about – they can go for walks alone or with relatives, for example – but many don’t go further than the lounge.
When Fred enters a room, the resident’s eyes light up. They’re always pleased to see us. Before settling down, Fred has a sniff around the floor to see if there are any crumbs. There never are, as the home is kept spotless.
We have a chat while they stroke Fred and pet him. They love it when he wags his tail when they talk to him. I take in dog treats for them to give him, including his favourite smoked-meat flavour, which he only has when he goes there.
Some residents save up biscuits for Fred and he always remembers which room is occupied by the lady who saves him a digestive biscuit. We’re careful not to let him have too many snacks, though, and of course he mustn’t have chocolate because it’s bad for dogs.
Pets are great therapyMost of the people we visit know Fred by name and look forward to seeing him every fortnight. Some of them recognise him but don’t appear to remember who he is. Some are completely with it, while others aren’t quite so switched on, but Fred doesn’t mind. He enjoys the attention and the residents love the way he looks at them with adoration.
One lady, who can barely talk, absolutely adores Fred and seeing him seems to improve her speech.
The staff are very keen on Fred visiting. I think it makes it easier for them if the residents are happy. And of course it’s nice for the residents to talk to somebody who’s neither family nor staff. Whatever they say to me goes no further, and I become a sort of friend to them. I think it helps them to have someone else to talk to. Fred and I are two visitors who the residents can talk about with their other visitors.
There’s one chap with Parkinson’s who I think perhaps likes talking to me more than Fred, but that doesn’t matter. It’s still a visit for him.
It’s a very different life for people in the home. Everything is done for the residents: all their meals are provided and there’s a lady who runs very good and stimulating activities, but there's still a lot of time to fill. So Fred's visits really make a difference.
Many residents had pets before they came to the home, either in the recent past or a long time ago and I hear a lot of stories about their pets and what they were like. One of them had a bird that she had to pass on to a friend when she moved to the home. The bird’s still alive; she’s got a photo of it and we talk about it. Photos of Fred are very popular with the residents, especially ones of him on holiday playing on the beach and when he was a puppy.
Fred is usually impeccably behaved, although he once stole a biscuit. After we’ve visited the residents in their rooms, we go in the lounge to see if there’s anyone there who wants to see him. They have coffee and delicious homemade biscuits in there. One resident had put a biscuit on the table, rather than their saucer, and while I was talking to somebody else Fred’s lead suddenly extended a little bit and the biscuit was gone. The residents thought it was hilarious; they clapped and laughed. It was funny at the time, but it wouldn’t have been funny if Fred had eaten someone’s medication instead of a biscuit, so I’ve kept a closer eye on him since then.
The science bitThere’s been a lot of research on the benefits of spending time with a pet. I think the overall feeling is that having a pet, or a visiting pet like Fred, calms people, reducing blood pressure and stress. It also improves their mood. There is definite scientific evidence that it does help. It’s been shown that stroking a pet can help some patients manage without sleeping pills and it also helps people who are clinically depressed.
As well as visiting nursing homes, hospices and hospitals, PAT dogs are used in schools, for the Read2Dogs scheme, which helps to encourage children to read. I haven’t been involved in this, but it sounds very good. Apparently if the dog falls asleep you say he’s just got his eyes shut, he’s concentrating!
We all gain from PATIt’s a win-win-win situation: for Fred, for me and for the residents. It’s lovely meeting them: they’re all nice people who are from all different walks of life. Many of them have had interesting careers and done fascinating things. One has taught in Africa and another is an incredibly good artist – her room is covered with beautiful collages and paintings.
To start with, I found visiting the home a little upsetting but I’ve come to understand that the best is being done for everyone. And of course, sometimes the residents die. That’s happened with one or two that I’ve got to know over the years. It is distressing, but no worse than when patients died when I was working as a doctor. You just have to accept it.
A while ago, the staff asked me to take Fred to see an old lady who was dying. She wasn’t someone who we usually visited, but they thought seeing him would cheer her up. She was lying down and they tilted the head of the bed so she could see him catch a treat. And she smiled. It was nice.
*Name has been changed.
Photo: Megan Amelia Photography
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