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Connie demonstrating the therapeutic value of the animal-human connection

Connie demonstrating the therapeutic value of the animal-human connection

Connie’s career in therapy

Connie the Colliedoodle, along with her minder, Sally Patricia Gardner, have combined forces to offer their services to Pets As Therapy (PAT), an organisation offering community based Animal Assisted Therapy across the length and breadth of the UK. Sally Patricia Gardener writes about her and Connie’s experience of being PAT volunteers.

It is very strange, this loving business. There you are, trundling along, minding your own business and BOOM – you lose your heart and your entire life changes. It was Connie that did it for me and Ro (my other half). There she was, just sitting looking at us, but with her whole demeanour yelling ‘Me! You want me!’. And yes, we did. Instantly. Completely. Talk about love at first sight.


To clarify, Connie is a dog. Well, a puppy when we first met. Specifically, a Colliedoodle puppy. And, before you ask, her Mum was a Border Collie and her Dad a Standard Poodle. That was a couple of years ago; she’s bigger now. Quite a bit, actually. She settled in happily with our multi-animal household, consisting of Bengie, an ancient Sprocker, Blue, a Border Collie and several cats, all of whom had been adopted as adults, so having a youngster around was a constant joy.

It quickly became obvious that she was quite bright, so we decided she should have a career. I contacted Pets As Therapy who sent us the information about their work and what was expected from their animals. So when she was about 10 months old, we began training her to be a therapy dog.

The PAT exam – happily there was no written work

A few weeks later, we went to Bexhill to meet the PAT examiner who would put Connie through her paces. Connie was not a bit nervous, but we were! If you think worrying about your kids taking their A levels is nerve-wracking, trust me, it’s not in the same league as taking your dog for the PAT exam. Happily, there was no written work, and she passed with flying colours and soon after donned her uniform and became a working PAT Dog.

The purpose of PAT dogs can be summed up in a short phrase – to make people feel better.

Lesley Scott-Ordish, the founder of PAT, devoted most of her life to investigating and writing about the bond between humans and animals, in particular dogs. She understood the trauma experienced by many elderly folks if they had to give up a much-loved pet upon going into residential care. This was what inspired her, in 1983, to start PAT, working with two collies, a German Shepherd and an Old English Sheepdog. Their visits to hospitals and nursing homes proved so successful in both aiding recuperation and simply cheering people up that only six months later the scheme was extended nationally.

Smiles and much laughter

Connie pays a weekly visit to Mountside Residential Care Home in Hastings and we love to hear the residents saying: ‘Oh, our dog is here’, when they see her coming. They tell us how much they look forward to seeing her, and she certainly seems to bring many smiles and much laughter with her as she does her rounds. Often seeing and stroking Connie will stimulate memories and reminiscences. Only a few days ago, Connie reminded an elderly lady she was visiting of the pet rabbit she had as a child, because stroking Connie’s ears had brought the memory back. It was lovely to be able to share this memory.

Connie also regularly visits a care home in the village of Brede where we live. And she is sometimes asked to give talks about her work, most recently to a Hastings Brownie pack (I do have to help her with the talks …) – and she has just begun working with a dog-phobic child in Bexhill and we’re encouraged to see very definite progress there.

Connie demonstrating sitting quietly and patiently

Connie demonstrating sitting quietly and patiently

Dogs have been providing love and reassurance to humans for centuries. The first therapeutic use of dogs can be traced back to ancient Greece, when dogs were employed to lick the wounds of injured human patients. In the 1700s, Quakers brought dogs to treatment centres for the mentally unstable, allowing patients to care for the pets themselves, thereby facilitating rebuilding their confidence and social skills.

Their unique power to heal

Later Florence Nightingale developed early theories on the use of animals in therapy, acknowledging their unique power to heal. Studies have been carried out in recent times proving that interaction with dogs increases levels of neurotransmitters associated with happiness and bonding, while reducing chemicals associated with distress.

Ro and I find working with Connie immensely rewarding. PAT are always glad to have more volunteers as the dogs are in much demand, so if you think your dog might be a suitable candidate, here are a few pointers.

Through World War II and up to the present day, the training and procurement of therapy dogs has undergone a more organised approach, as illustrated with PAT. Both the dogs and their owners undergo a screening process before becoming PAT volunteers. Owners have to supply references and, depending on where they are called upon to work, sometimes have a police check.

Dogs undergo a quite extensive test. Firstly, they must never jump up or paw the owner, or anyone else. Then they have to prove that they will walk on a lead without pulling, will sit calmly while the owner is talking to someone else, will stay calm while being brushed, tickled and generally handled, will allow the owner to pull the dog close by the collar without protesting, will take a treat gently without snatching, will lie quietly close to the owner for 10 minutes or so while they are sitting and chatting, and, of course, they must not be disconcerted by things such as walking frames and wheel chairs.

Sudden loud noises

It is also stressed that they must not react to sudden loud noises. The importance of this was brought home to us when all the fire alarms went off in one of the homes we were visiting. Not only was the cacophony quite ear- piercing and prolonged, but staff ran through the building slamming all the doors shut. I covered Connie’s ears after a few seconds, but she just sat without moving, looking at me as if to say ‘What IS going on?’ Happily, as it turned out, it was only a drill, but it was also a learning curve for us.

Mind bogglingly, PAT also has some cats on their work force, but if you are thinking of enrolling yours, having lived with cats all my life, I can only say good luck with that…

If you would like to know more about the work of PAT, check out their website.

Sally Patricia Gardner is sometimes allowed time off to write the occasional novel and also to be Chair of Shorelink Writers.


Posted 07:21 Sunday, Nov 6, 2016 In: Health Matters

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