Volunteering with Teiga and Gemma

My friend’s aunt suffered from Alzheimer’s and after her aunt died my friend started doing pet therapy, in her memory, with her standard poodle. My dog, a Rhodesian ridgeback named Teiga, had already passed her CD in obedience, was doing agility and lure coursing and so I felt that pet therapy was one more thing I could achieve with my versatile ridgeback! How unprepared I was for what pet therapy is really all about!

At the time I was living in Ontario and my first step was to join an organisation that would test my dog’s suitability for this type of work. The advantage of belonging to a group is that they will ensure your dog has the right temperament for the job, often suggest where to volunteer, supply insurance and generally answer questions and give support. I investigated TDI or Therapy Dogs International and St. John’s Ambulance. I joined the first group and found a certified evaluator in my area. Some basic obedience is necessary but what is most important is that your dog has a calm temperament, is not easily upset by sudden moves, loud noises, wheelchairs or crowded environments. Teiga was three years old at the time and was judged suitable.

The next step was to decide where to go. I thought I would like to work with children and found a rehabilitation hospital for children in the area. The normal procedure is to apply through the volunteer co-ordinator at the facility. I was quite unprepared for just how disabled these children would be, many of whom had brain injuries from accidents and could not communicate verbally or in some cases even breathe on their own. Teiga truly helped me through this difficult beginning as I was often feeling very emotional and she just took it all in stride. She did not look at these children as different or disabled – just people and I realised just how special this work is when one of the nurses told me the smile on a particular child’s face was the first they had seen since she had been there! One teenager who could not speak and communicated through pointing to letters to make words, used to scream with joy when she put her index finger on Teiga’s cold, wet nose!

After four months of weekly visits we moved out west and was I proud when they gave me a reference letter that said “Teiga appears to have a rare understanding of special needs children”. Soon after arriving on Vancouver Island I discovered PATS, Pacific Animal Therapy Society, founded and run by Sadey Guy, a very dedicated retired nurse who loves animals and recognised the need for pet therapy. Around this time I got my second Rhodesian Ridgeback, Gemma, who is less confident than Teiga but very affectionate.

I joined PATS with both dogs and we started visiting the paediatric ward at the local hospital and a senior’s residence. At the hospital I sat with one young boy who was able to smile as he stroked and talked to Teiga the entire time he was receiving chemo therapy.

At the senior’s residence I have started visiting people suffering from dementia as well as the regular residents. They will often recall the dogs they had, maybe not even remembering their names, but with their eyes shining from the warmth of the memory. One veteran had a picture of a beautiful German shepherd dog in his room and I discovered that he used to train dogs for the army and had this special dog with him overseas.

I visit an elderly woman at the residence who is extremely bright and talkative with a very positive attitude but suffering from a progressive disease that affects her balance and she can no longer even sit up and is totally bed-ridden. She loves Gemma to be on the bed with her and we have the most amazing conversations while she spoils Gemma with love and way too many dog biscuits.

I recently read an article called “Volunteer Your Dog and Your Heart” and maybe this best summaries pet therapy for me. It is very easy to start getting attached to people you visit on a regular basis. Sadly, it is quite possible, especially with seniors, to go in one week and discover that they have passed away. You give of your time and work with your dog to experience the bitter-sweet task of bringing a few moments of joy to someone who can no longer have a pet of their own. It is like nothing else we do with our dogs and they love it! ~ Jane Beauchamp