Milly is getting excited, its nearly time to go. Bathed, brushed, nails checked, teeth brushed, healthcare carefully up-to-date, Milly is groomed and glossy and beautiful. She also has an important job to do, to cheer up some people who might be feeling a bit under the weather, or lonely, or sad. She finds it a bit tiring, but each time she gets ready to go it is the same - she just can not help getting excited about what she does. The front door opens and she bounds out to the car, to head off to the Sunnyside Park Home in Pietermaritzburg, where for the next hour or so she will greet, cuddle and cosy up to the aged and often frail residents.
Milly is a pretty Cavalier King Charles Spaniel owned by Gill Pryke of Hilton, and at the Sunnyside Park Home she meets up with her friends who will share the hour-long visit: Clara Jones and Brodie (a Golden Terrier); Monique Vljoen-Platts and Vashti (a cross-breed rescued by the SPCA). Rebecca Ross and Riley (another Golden Retriever), are absent today as Riley is getting over a dose of bilary. The dogs and their owners form the basis of the Midlands group of Paws for People, a non-profit group originally founded decades ago in the USA that uses animals to bring joy to people in homes, hospitals and frail-care facilities. It is South Africa’s first fully registered, insured and active therapy dog programme.
Paws stands for Pets are Wonderfully Support, and to see the Sunnyside residents response to the dogs is heart-warming. Hands clawed tight with arthritis stroke glossy coats and fondle soft ears, while Milly is lifted onto laps and even beds (with her special little blanket), so that she can be hugged and petted.
The dogs are amazingly gentle, and seem sensitive to their task. But it is also the result of a strict selection process that ensures that both pet and owner know what it takes. Animal behaviousrists assess each animal to see that there is no chance of it being boisterous, snapping, or being frightened of touching and hugging by strangers. They must also be able to cope with loud noises and unfamiliar environments, crutches and wheelchairs, and the smells and sounds of hospital wards. There are intensive desensitisation training sessions to prepare pets and owners for their job.
Stability, tolerance, consistency of behaviour and the ability to cope with stressful situations are vital. Dogs with attack training are automatically disqualified, but a dogs breed is irrelevant.
On the visits, each dog wears a collar and lead and a Paws coat. Strict health and cleanliness routines are maintained (the dogs teeth are cleaned, with a chicken-flavoured toothpaste!), and the dogs are sprayed with an anti-bacterial spray before they enter the premises. The owners carry a satchel with veterinary certification, cloths, disinfectant, water and bowls, and a blanket for the dog.
The mission statement of Paws for People states that their aim is to create Therapy Dog Units nationwide, so as to offer more people the advantages of interacting with friendly dogs, and share the unconditional love they offer. The current problem locally is the limited number of members. The dogs find it quite draining, so visits are kept to an hour at a time. Although this is a community service and volunteers do not get paid, people look forward so much to the visits that a no-show is devastating for them, so commitment from participants is vital.
Do you have a pet that you think would be good with people who need some love and unconditional affection? Do you have the time to dedicate yourself to the project?
Please contact Clara Jones on 083 270-1717 or 033 343-1320 if you think you can help.