Issue 109

Why I Trained My Dog to Be a Therapy Dog

Recently I read a book about a dog who visited a hospital as a therapy dog and, rather self-indulgently, it made me imagine my life in thirty, forty or fifty years time.

Having owned dogs all my life if I were to suddenly find myself without one at a time when companionship might feel even more important to avoid feeling isolated, I'm not sure how I'd cope.

Suddenly, reading a book - albeit fiction - about people who take the time to train their dogs as therapy dogs and visit care homes, hospitals or places in need weekly, took on a whole new meaning.

Across London, a program called TheraPaws, run by animal welfare charity, Mayhew has 50 such dogs and their owners registered, including Peter Waldman and his Weimaraner, Tobi.

Each week, Peter, Tobi and the other dogs and their owners visit over 40 different venues, such as care homes, hospices and hospitals, across the capital city.

Peter told us why he feels it's important to give back to the community and why his rescue dog, Tobi, is right for the job.

First steps to becoming a therapy dog

A long-time dog owner, Tobi is Peter’s first rescue dog. Visiting Primrose Hill one day, he and Tobi came across an event taking place and saw a TheraPaws tent. He started speaking with TheraPaws' Luke Balsam, learning all about their visiting animal therapy programme and thought "this could actually be quite a nice thing to do".

Not yet retired, Peter explains, "Over the last 30 years, I have been in hospital having a couple of rather serious heart operations and I started to think that actually, it would have made a very big difference to me if somebody had come to visit me with a dog. So, I thought let’s get a few brownie points if nothing else (laughs)."

What makes a good therapy dog

TheraPaws Project Manager, Luke Balsam, tells us, “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.

“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.”

The start of a journey

After being assessed by Luke and a dog trainer on behalf of TheraPaws, Tobi passed and alongside Peter, the pair have been visiting a local residential care home and other TheraPaws one-off events at universities, for example, over the last two years.

Peter tells us, “When we visit we will sit and chat to two, three, four people depending on who’s sitting in the communal area and because it’s residential, we’ll visit say, four other people, depending on who’s in, in their individual flats."

They spend an hour and a half each week and often see the same residents, which has helped them to build strong friendships over time.

“They tend to be the same people every week and there are one or two people who would like to take Tobi home (laughs).”

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Dogs bring back memories

Peter tells us, “I always take treats with me and there is one guy we regularly see who has quite serious dementia and he always enjoys giving the treats to Tobi. One time after a visit the staff said to me 'this gentleman doesn’t remember where he’s been, for example, but he always remembers Tobi'.

“I really feel Tobi has been the means of helping him join the world again to a very small extent. It’s been quite emotional to see.

“You can’t help but not be affected or connected to the person that you’re sitting with. I’m 70 years old and I don’t know whether 5 or 10 years down the line if that person would be me, and if so, I’d hope that someone would do the same thing for me. We all like being connected to the larger world.

“Isolation is a terrible thing and if I was sitting chatting without Tobi, I don’t think we’d have the same conversations. Every connection that we make, every conversation, every little nuance, it’s all because Tobi’s there. He brings down barriers.”

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