Oakie the dog only has eyes for rest home resident Bet.

Furry friends spark joy in rest home residents

Moska, another member of the Canine Friends team.

Vicky Graham and her dogs Hunter and Piers are part of Canine Friends, an organisation that has been arranging for dogs to visit rest homes for 30 years. She tells Eldernet why she finds the visits so rewarding, and what makes a good therapy dog.

How did you come to be involved with Canine Friends Pet Therapy?

In 1988 I purchased a golden retriever puppy from Eileen Curry, founder of Canine Friends Pet Therapy. This was the beginning of my friendship with Eileen and my journey with Canine Friends. In 1990 I began visiting with my golden retriever and joined the committee.

What is the general reaction from clients to getting a visit?

We regularly hear the words “faces light up” and this says it all. Memories of loved pets and happier times return and the emphasis shifts from feeling unwell and lonely. A dog creates friendships, breaks down barriers and provides a kind distraction during anxious moments, helping people to feel reconnected to the world.

The majority of our members visit rest homes on a weekly or fortnightly basis, others visit intensive care units in several hospitals. The staff say they often see visible changes in a patient’s mood, which is very beneficial for recovery. We have members visiting oncology units, sitting with patients awaiting treatment. The visits are a huge morale boost and have a positive effect for both staff and patients.

How did your dog take to being part of the team?

Over the years I have owned several golden retrievers and five have been part of Canine Friends. Dogs generally love being the centre of attention and meeting people – this has certainly been the case with mine! We often hear from members that their dogs know it is visiting time as soon as their Canine Friends scarf appears and are very eager to walk into their assigned facility.

Are there particular traits that make for a good therapy dog?

When assessing a new applicant’s dog we look for an outgoing, steady and kind temperament and a dog who is willing to move forward to sit close to a person sitting in an armchair or wheelchair or lying on a bed.

Any special training required?

Our dogs are assessed by our liaison officers who have experience in responsible dog ownership. Many of our liaison officers are dog trainers and compete in various dog sports. Whilst no special training is required, we are looking for the traits mentioned in my previous answer.

Do the dogs enjoy it? Do they understand their role?

Yes, the dogs do enjoy visiting and interacting with residents and patients. They have a sense of knowing when someone is feeling unwell or lonely and will sit companionably beside a person.

What precautions do you need to take for a visit?

We like our members to check in with staff and ask if anyone shouldn’t be visited for whatever reason, and also to ask if there are any new residents who would like to see them. Particularly during the summer months we are mindful of warm temperatures in facilities and need to consider our dogs’ comfort during visits. Our dogs should always be well groomed and of course toileted prior to visiting.

You must have had some lovely moments with this work – tell us about one of them.

Whilst visiting a rest home in Te Puke several years ago, I was approached by the two daughters of a woman who had been non-responsive for almost five years. One daughter placed her mother’s hand on my dog’s head and moved it down his ear. To our delight she smiled – yes, the first time in many years! Needless to say, it was a very emotional few moments.

And no doubt there have been some visits that have not gone well?

We always make our members aware of different situations which may arise during visits – particularly seeing people with challenging behaviours. Each visit is different, some more rewarding than others.

Do you see scope for expanding the work? Any other animals that are good therapists?

We are strictly dogs only! However, it is not unusual to see television programmes featuring other animals visiting rest homes, horses in particular.

About Vicky Graham

My involvement with Canine Friends Pet Therapy began in the early 1990s as a volunteer and committee member. With much pride I have witnessed the growth of our organisation from small beginnings in Wellington to a recognised and respected nationwide charity. In 2015 I was privileged to be recognised as an honorary member. I established Canine Friends in Taupo in 2008 and am the liaison officer for this area. Since 2017 I have filled the roles of vice president, funding/sponsorship coordinator and was elected president in 2019. I wholeheartedly believe in pet therapy and helping those who can no longer enjoy the benefits of owning a dog – this was our beginning and to me is the essence of our charity.