Could your dog make a great therapy companion? Pets As Therapy is a national charity that send volunteers and their pets to visit care homes, hospitals, hospices, schools and prisons. Their aim is to simply bring smiles to many faces and give people of all ages a chance to chat to someone — and stroke and cuddle a friendly dog or cat.
After years of being told that Missy had a perfect temperament for it, we took the plunge at the start of this year and had her assessed as a therapy dog.
Who can apply?
Anyone can apply to become a Pets As Therapy Dog, so long as our pet is at least nine months old, and you must have known them for at least six months. They are looking for volunteers of all ages and walks of life. PAT Pets should be friendly and calm, healthy and well-groomed, and love being fussed over. Breed doesn’t matter, with mutts just as welcome as pedigrees.
It should be noted (at the time of writing) that PAT will not take dogs that are raw fed, owing to the poor health of a lot of the people being visited.
We knew from friends and relations that they operated in our area, so we went ahead and sent in our application, which is all done online.
There are two types of membership, a solo volunteer or a joint volunteer account, for becoming a Pets As Therapy Dog. To become a Pets As Therapy Dog volunteer, each human must provide two different references and a passport-style photo. An annual volunteer contribution must also be made once the assessment has been completed and passed. For the dog, proof of up-to-date vaccinations must be shown, and there must be assurance that the dog is fit and healthy, with a note of any medication they may be taking. For example, Missy is on antihistamines, owing to both a dairy and an environmental allergy. Lastly, we had to take Missy’s “passport” photo:
Once our application had been processed, we were granted an online account to track our progress. The first step was the assessment.
Using our postcode, we were assigned to the nearest assessor and made contact. As covid was very much a concern at the start of the year, we had scheduled to do an outdoor assessment at a mutually agreeable location. Of course, it decided to both snow and rain on us that day and so, masks on, we relocated to an indoors location.
Both dog and owner are assessed, so Missy got to do it twice as my husband also wanted to volunteer.
What is involved in an assessment?
During the 45 minutes, the following must be demonstrated:
Walking on a relaxed lead, without excessive pulling and without the use of head collars, harnesses or check chains. At the same time, the owner must demonstrate control of their dog on the lead whilst holding a conversation with the assessor.
The dog must be comfortable being stroked and handled and having their paws, tail and ears checked by both the owner and the assessor.
The dog must be well groomed with short nails. They must also take a food treat gently without snatching from the assessor.
The dog must also display an appropriate response to a sudden noise or disturbance in the room whilst being tested.
Lastly, the owner must demonstrate that they can restrict their dog by holding its collar or holding him/her firmly and remove them from the room.
What behaviours will result in a deferral?
- Jumping up
- Pawing, or putting paws up
- Pulling on the lead
- Reluctance/backing away when being fussed
- Vocalisations, such as barking or growling
- Taking food greedily
It sounds a lot to cover in a short space of time, but the assessor was great at keeping all of us at ease and explaining simply what we had to do and why. Missy aced the lead walking and disturbance test (simply lying and the floor and looking rather perplexed at why the bottle full of treats had been thrown upon the floor). She allowed us to swiftly (and unexpectedly on her part) remove her from the room (I led her out whilst my husband showed off and simply carried her out the room).
There was only one area I wasn’t sure on – Missy’s absolute apathy about being handled. She’ll very gently take her paw back once she’s determined you’ve held onto it for long enough and will simply stand there stoically whilst being brushed. Such indifference proved to be a laughing point with the assessor, who claimed to have never met a dog so passively disinterested in being groomed.
We had a chat about what sort of volunteering we were interested in. I explained that we know from experience that Missy likes to snuggle up to the knees of the elderly and be petted, so we were leaning towards care home visits over classrooms, which we felt would be too over whelming for Missy. Our comments were met with nods, so there was clearly a box there that was ticked that we didn’t know about.
After that, all three of us were handed our proverbial gold stars and we were told we had passed the assessment with flying colours.
Once the assessment is processed, and the references supplied at the start have been received, you receive your welcome pack. All three of us received our ID batches and the paperwork explaining that we were approved by PAT. Then it was time to organise a visit.
Whilst occasionally there will be an email sent from the area coordinator asking for volunteers for a specific event, your mostly left to organise things for yourself. From your postcode, you’ll get a list of what’s available in the area and from there you just email/call and organise something that’s mutually convenient.
I will stress two things here:
- One, you are under no obligation to purchase any of the PAT uniform for yourself or the dog. We haven’t bought anything (if your representing PAT at an event you can borrow a uniform). Although I will confess the little dog vest is calling out to me!
- Two, it’s entirely down to what suits you – you can visit places as often or as little as you want. And if somewhere didn’t feel right, you’re under no obligation to go back. The only rule is that visits should not exceed 2 hours without a break for the dog.
The area rep also gave me a really good piece of advice: bring your own treats, and pretend the dog has allergies, otherwise people will try and fees them all sorts of things they shouldn’t.
So, where have we visited? Covid put us to a rocky start, but we have stuck with the original plan of care homes. Each visit has had at least one stand out moment for us, but our first is probably my favourite:
On our first visit, we were a bit unsure about the process as we were mostly met with “oh, a dog, very nice, there, there”. It just didn’t feel particularly rewarding. That was until we met a very elderly lady who was stone deaf. She was absently watching the TV and, upon spotting Missy, just came to life. There was a delighted cry as she moved with a speed I did not expect and bodily hugged Missy. There was laughter and tears and many treats given. The staff explained that she had grown up in a farm and absolutely loved dogs. The visit only went up from there as we met a gentleman who used to breed greyhounds and multiple other characters who were happy to share stories whilst fawning over Missy.
Is it worth it?
For myself and my husband, it’s been a very rewarding experience. Firstly, we like people. We like talking to people and helping out where we can. So, this kind of volunteering is naturally really rewarding for us.
However, we’re also ridiculously busy people, and the flexibility has allowed us to fit in volunteering when it suits us. And that’s been absolutely brilliant. I don’t feel I’m letting anyone down or having to fit things in when it doesn’t suit. Which makes me enjoy the visits more.
Lastly, we did get the opportunity to meet some other local PAT volunteers at Dogfest as we helped out at the stand. They were all lovely people, and we are very much looking forward to getting to know the community better!
And what about Missy? As far as we can tell, she loves it. She drags us out the car and to the nursing home doors and wags her tail for the residents. Cuddles, treats and much praise are reward enough for her.
Could your dog be a Pets As Therapy dog?
Has this post inspired you to sign your dog up? Click here to find out more about PAT, including testimonials and how to volunteer. Already have a Pets As Therapy dog? Share your experiences in the comments below.