As dog owners, we all know the benefit of simply having a dog in your life. One of their biggest qualities is their ability to love unconditionally and without judgement.
Part of their brilliance as a companion is their ability to predict what's going on with us and act accordingly. If they know we're sad or unwell, they'll sit quietly beside us giving comfort. If they sense we need a hug, well, get ready for one.
Meet BenJecky and Noodle
Aside from their role as our friend and family member, the dog's sixth sense has been harnessed for many purposes. And yet, we're still learning just what the dog can do that we don't yet know.
Earlier this year a study was carried out at the London School of Economics which was designed to test how clever dogs are and work out whether dogs can predict Alzheimer's in people.
The results of the study weren't a surprise to those involved in the field, though.
Across North and West London animal adoption centre, The Mayhew Animal Home's Therapaws pet therapy programme has been running for eight years, although only officially active for four years, as Luke Berman, Project Manager for TheraPaws explained.
Run by a dedicated team of volunteers who take their assessed dogs into hospitals, hospices, care homes, and day centres to engage and interact with older people, particularly those with dementia, providing companionship, building relationships, and brightening up their day, the idea for TheraPaws first came about eight years ago after a volunteer noticed the attention and amazing response she got while taking her dog to visit her mother in a care home. The programme was later officially started in 2012.
Tess having strokes at an Alzheimer’s Society event
At present TheraPaws visits over 40 different venues across 12 boroughs in London including Kensington and Chelsea, Brent, Westminster, and Haringey, and during the first three months of 2016, they completed 227 visits in the city. And with 75 volunteers and 55 dogs devoting their time to the scheme, demand is growing for the TheraPaws programme.
This is perhaps no surprise as the initiative has been shown to have mutual benefits for both humans and dogs, and improve the relationships between the two.
As well as enhancing people’s lives by helping to reduce social isolation and stress, the programme also helps to raise awareness of the positive effects dogs can have on humans. It reinforces a vision of promoting respect and compassion towards animals; it leads to an increase in awareness of why we should look out for man's best friend and changes people’s myths and opinions of different dog breeds.
How to Become a TheraPaws Dog
There are currently more than 20 different dog breeds on the programme, everything from a Labrador to a Staffie.
The most important qualities to becoming a TheraPaws dog is that they have to have a calm temperament, react positively to meeting strangers, and be comfortable with having their tail, head, ears and body touched. They must also be able to take food gently from a hand, walk on the lead without pulling and recover quickly from loud noises.
Charlie and her dog Lola
The whole process of qualifying as a TheraPaws volunteer and dog can take up to three months and involves interviews and dog assessments. This is to make sure they are both suitable and comfortable meeting different people in a new environment.
TheraPaws is also a good way for its volunteers to gain and build great relationships with the health professionals, residents and patients they visit. Volunteers typically visit most weeks and because of that are able to see the benefits their dog is having on those they visit.
Volunteers often say they witness first hand the positive impact their dogs have on the residents, from the way they become more alert to the smile that spreads across their faces when they enter a room.
It gives residents something to look forward to, encourages them out of their beds and sparks conversation which can lead to unlocking memories and emotions. TheraPaws volunteers create a strong bond with the residents, as the dogs bring a lot of joy and comfort, especially to those who have had to give up their pets because they’ve had to move into a care facility or hospital.
This makes it even more poignant when dogs visit. It’s clear to see that the dogs bring a lot of warmth and much-needed distraction to older residents who may be frightened, lonely or in pain.
Ilonka and her dog BenJecky
As its popularity grows, Luke tells us that TheraPaws continue to receive requests from venues in different areas. As well as the care homes and hospitals that visited. The pet therapy programme has also organised outreach events with other charities including Age UK and Alzheimer’s Society.
Jack with Shadow during Alzheimer’s Society event
Luke says, “Most recently our volunteers, Deborah Taffler and her dog Noodle and Ilonka Scaman and her dog BenJecky, all spent valuable time with older people, some with dementia, at the Age UK event at the Great Croft Resource Centre in Camden, London, which offers over 60’s a variety of services and activities.
“All eyes were on our TheraPaws dogs when they arrived at the centre and they were quickly awarded cuddles and big smiles from their devoted admirers including Irene Robinson.
Irene said, “I’m 92 years old and all my life I’ve always had dogs. It’s been lovely to have them here, being able to cuddle them. It has definitely brightened up my day.”
While Antonio D’Este, Age UK Day Care Manager, added: “I first heard about TheraPaws through The Mayhew Animal Home’s open day in June. I thought this was a great initiative to introduce to our Age UK groups."
Antonio continued, “It’s so lovely to see the dogs interacting with people, and it gets them talking about pets that they had in the past. It’s wonderful to see their reactions when they enter the room – their faces instantly light up.”
It was a terrific day and the volunteers and their dogs really enjoyed interacting with so many different people.
Irene with Noodle at the Age UK Camden event
TheraPaws has proved so successful - they were even nominated for Animal Hero Awards’ Special Recognition Award this year - something Luke is keen to build on saying, "All of the venues that we visit are seeing the positive impact that the volunteers and their dogs bring."
With this in mind, Luke would also like to explore other areas of therapy including rehabilitation work with veterans, stroke patients and look at visiting people in their own homes.
He concludes, "Not only do our TheraPaws dogs bring comfort and stimulation and help to improve the quality of peoples’ lives whilst receiving care, they are also fantastic rescue dog ambassadors who are changing people’s perceptions – in our eyes, they are true pet heroes!"