Have you ever wondered how you could give back to your community without sacrificing your precious time with your pooch? We all lead such busy lives and if you are anything like me, the best part of my day is my evening walk with Arlo.
I hope our story below will inspire one or all of you to take a look at the Pets As Therapy website and consider if your pup would suit becoming a Therapy Dog.
Why we became volunteers.
Arlo has always been intelligent. He picked up obedience training easily and was soon getting his Bronze and Silver awards with the Kennel Club Good Citizen Scheme. Labradors are known for being bright but dippy and Arlo fits into this category perfectly. You could always see the excitement Arlo got from interacting with people, especially children. I was desperate to nurture his instinct and keep his mind sharp.
Spring came and I was scrolling through Instagram one evening when I noticed a post about a PAT dog. I had no idea what ‘PAT’ meant and being an inquisitive soul, I went to the 90s kids best friend, Google. I read up on the website about volunteering, becoming a therapy dog, what it involved and the type of placements. It was just what I had been after; I could encourage Arlo to interact with humans but also give back to those in my area.
Then doubt hit me. Although Arlo is amazing, he was only one year old. He could still have the odd day where he decided to jump up at a visitor or ignore me. After a few days of mulling it over, we signed up, there was no harm in seeing what could happen. It was then I noticed the Read2Dogs scheme. Arlo adores children and he naturally knows how to behave around them. He is always around children of varying ages regularly due to our big families. Arlo knows to be calm, gentle, and placid around those smaller than him.
I have always been an avid reader, especially as a child. I would love to get lost in the mischief of Mildred Hubble (The Worst Witch), the adventures of the Famous Five, or the antics of the animals being treated at the Animal Ark clinic. Reading was such a big part of my childhood and I wanted to encourage and inspire others to pick up books.
How we became volunteers
The day of our review arrived and I was nervous. What if Arlo jumped up a little old lady or suddenly forgetting all his training? I met the two ladies testing us at a local garden centre. I had suggested the location as there was a café, lots of noise, people and best of all very young children.
The ladies we met were great and had a very relaxed vibe which instantly chilled us both out. Arlo wowed them with his food manners and how placid he was when a toddler approached out of nowhere to pet him. We discussed that Arlo would be best suited to a Read2Dogs placement.
I hoped one day he could visit hospitals and retirement homes but I felt his current maturity and experience with youngsters were better suited to this scheme. They agreed and I was thrilled. The test itself went smoothly, the examiners just wanted to know that your dog is safe, calm, and well behaved. They expect a calm greeting with 4 paws on the ground and no negative reactions to fuss, attention and loud noises.
The onus is very much on the volunteer throughout the process. We sent off our paperwork and were soon enough approved. Now for the hard part and (surprisingly) the most challenging of our experience, finding our placement.
We chose to start at a Primary School as I felt Arlo would flourish in the environment. I too would feel more confident talking about fairies, pirates and dinosaurs than Cardi B (still no idea who she is) and what the older children of today discuss.
To begin finding a placement, I proactively searched the list of local schools that had signed up to the programme and contacted one that was a mile from our door. They replied immediately. I got ahead of myself here and ordered myself a PAT polo shirt and Arlo a bandana. The uniform isn’t compulsory but It’s important to look professional when visiting schools. It would also highlight to the children and parents who I was and why I was there (you can never be too safe).
I regularly contacted the school to set up our initial meeting and to run through my ideas to no avail. After no luck, I decided to widen my search and contact more schools, including those not registered with Pets As Therapy. I was surprised and disappointed that I only got one response. One response was all I needed though and better still, it was my own Primary School.
Within days I had met the Literacy Lead and we had discussed what the programme was and how sessions would work. I had to send their details to Pets As Therapy so they could be added to the system and have all the documentation sent to them. It was easier than I thought.
A few weeks later I came into the school with Arlo to lead an assembly. Ensuring the children were excited about our visit was important to me. It gave them the prospect of reading to Arlo but also lay the foundation for some simple rules. I called these rules the ‘Big Five’ and added each of them to part of a paw print.
The children range from nursery to Year Six so I needed my talk to appeal to all age groups. I kept my presentation simple and made it interactive. Starting with a quiz on Arlo, the children could learn about his breed, age, and likes. I then explained that Arlo loved stories and I was desperate for him to hear more but I didn’t have the time. The kids loved it and were so excited to help. I knew I had made the right decision as Arlo was great in the noisy environment and couldn’t get enough of the fuss he received from the children.
Soon enough we were starting our therapy dog sessions and I have never seen Arlo so desperate to get into a building. I love walking past the playground and having the children call out to him and gasp “it’s Arlo” and “Miss, when can I read to him?”
There was one magic moment a few weeks ago that will stick with me. The teacher ran up to me excitedly to show me a photo of her student in the class reading corner. The child enjoyed his session with Arlo so much, that he had picked his book for the following week.
The teacher then explained that it was impossible to get him to pick up a book usually so it’s a huge achievement. I went home really feeling like Arlo and I had made a difference that day and it was a wonderful feeling.
It doesn’t all go swimmingly when becoming a therapy dog. The timing of sessions was difficult to get right at first. It became clear we were trying to benefit too many children at once so we worked together to find a solution.
We also struggled with Teaching Assistants as they need to be present to help children who may be struggling. We soon found a lovely student teacher to devote Friday afternoons to Arlo and now the process runs smoothly.
I love knowing we have made a difference and have encouraged reluctant readers to pick up a book. There is nothing better than when they run around the corner with a new book that they want to show Arlo. One week, the charity sent out ‘Arlo Bookmarks’ and Pets As Therapy stickers. The children were so happy to get a present from Arlo with his face on.
How to Register
Arlo and I hope to continue our journey at the school and each term we have a new group of children sent to us. I would encourage any of you with a happy, calm pooch to take a look at becoming a therapy dog. You too can make the world of difference!
Does Your Pooch Have What It Takes To Be a Therapy Dog?
Perhaps your dog is a PAT dog already? Maybe this is something that interests you and Arlo has inspired you to get involved? Share your comments below.