An interview with Eileen Hodge, co-founder, trustee of Therapy Dogs Nationwide and a volunteer herself.
How did it all start?
Having volunteered for many years using my dogs for therapy myself and friends, I realised something was missing, the camaraderie and openness that we had should be for everyone. I decided to take advice and talk to others who had similar or more experience, and Therapy Dogs Nationwide started to grow. Our mission statement is ‘A charity run by volunteers, for volunteers, to support them in what they do best’.
What would be a typical situation for one of your therapy dogs to attend?
Visiting a care home so the residents can hold, stroke and talk to my small dog, they start to chat about pets they had as youngsters or before they came to the home. There are so many smiles and fond memories. For the bed ridden he sits on their bed and snuggles up whilst being stroked and more often than not has a little snooze.
Another is going into school to help the children with their reading but also with any behavioural problems. Groups of children will come and sit with the dog and read their books. We don’t correct them but will help with sounding the word and it doesn’t matter if they get it wrong, the dog can’t spell! Also in school there are children with specific problems (behavioural or social and emotional) who benefit greatly from spending time with the dogs. Just sitting and stroking calms them down if they are ‘hyper’ but on the other hand if they are sad or unhappy they can play games and learn how to react round dogs and other animals. It is a medical fact that stroking an animal lowers your blood pressure markedly and also releases endorphins in your brain (the happy hormones).
Are you looking for more dogs? If so, what sort? Any preferences on breed, size, temperament?
We desperately need more volunteers with their dogs as we have a number of places on our waiting list.
We accept any size, any breed. We have Chihuahuas to Leonbergers and a Great Dane. Our stipulation is that the dog is over nine months old and has been with the owner for six months. They undergo a temperament assessment with one of our trained assessors which takes around 45 minutes. If you have a well behaved dog you will be likely to pass an assessment. The dog doesn’t have to like other dogs either, just to love humans. We also have Staffies, and Rottweillers, a real cross section. Also they have to be well presented, nails clipped well groomed etc and have all up to date vaccinations or homeopathic equivalent.
How do the owners and the dogs find it? Is it a big commitment?
All our volunteers will tell you how much satisfaction they get out of their visits with their dogs. Watching your dog help others and bring joy is the best feeling in the world.
The commitment is whatever you want to make it. We have volunteers that visit establishments 7 days a week and other maybe once a fortnight or once a month. The average is around two or three visits a week. The volunteer chooses how much they want to do but we do ask that however many times they go it has to be regularly as people are relying on them coming. Full time volunteers will do their visits on a Saturday or a Sunday or if it is convenient with establishment in an evening. We also have VIP supporters who haven’t a dog who will give talks for us or accompany us on talks and awareness days. These are normally at weekends or evenings.
As far as the dog is concerned they will tell you whether they are happy in any given situation. I have 3 therapy dogs, all love working with children but only one like visiting the residential home. Owners will know their own dogs, and owner and dog have both got to be happy in where they visit. They can change where they visit at any time if they are unhappy and we will support them in whatever they decide.
How can somebody interested become a volunteer? Is any additional training required?
If anyone is interested in becoming a volunteer with their dog they should Email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Beryl Scholes, 14 Maes-y-Bryn, Berthengam, Flintshire CH8 9BA , or they can ring for a chat 07840 994 003.
There is no specific training involved but having attended training classes at a local pet obedience club is beneficial, as is the Kennel Club Good Citizen Scheme. We want well behaved, socially acceptable, friendly, lovable dogs which is what most responsible dog owners have.