The volunteer job that I applied for last December has started. It took this long to set up because of references and police vetting procedures. It is ‘Coordinator of the Galway region for Irish Therapy Dogs’. I will be dealing with administration, setting up programmes with care centres and assessing the local teams.

On Saturday Brenda and Brian from Dublin showed me the ropes in the Galway Hospice and we assessed four new teams. The emblem for the Galway Hospice is a sunflower and the atmosphere was light and bright. It is run by efficient volunteers who do the cooking and driving etc. and the good will was palpable.

I met Laura with her therapy dog Freda, a rescued Chihuahua, who are already active in the hospice and do weekly visits. When she got Freda from the sanctuary the tiny dog just ran around in little circles as she had lived in a cage on a puppy farm. She was lucky to find Laura! In her yellow I.T.D uniform with bright blond hair, big almond eyes and the largest perma-smile I have ever seen she looked like the sunflower fairy. 

The dogs and the owners are carefully assessed. The owners need to have a strong commitment to weekly visits and a kind, understanding, loving nature. The dogs need to be calm, obedient, well groomed, comfortable around strangers and in strange surroundings, not smell and have their nails clipped. Also the insurance insists they must not have any blood lines from dogs listed as restricted breeds.

The visits become very important for long term residential patients or people that cannot leave the centres but the real therapy takes place with the severe cases; patients with stroke, dementia, mental health problems or social interactive problems like autism. The aim is to make a connection to people locked into loneliness and work to improve their emotional health.

There are many success stories:

One man had been visiting his wife for eighteen months after she had had a stroke, she hadn’t spoken since but then one day she said ‘that is a lovely dog’.

Another long term resident with intellectual disabilities who no one had ever heard speak started beckoning to his lap after weeks of having the therapy dog put on his knees, saying ‘DOG, DOG’
A huge wolfhound called Setanta has had great success in a special needs school. One of the most popular activities is lying down and reading to him.

Brenda the founder of I.T.D. says ‘what ever the mental capacity of the person there is always a window to make a connection.’ You place the person’s hand on the dog and let them stroke it if they are happy to do this. She said ‘you know when a connection is made if you look above their eyes and see a light turn on, then maybe a glimmer of a smile.’