An old lady is sitting in a lounge in a home for the elderly. She is totally withdrawn into herself. She has no friends and no relations to visit her, except maybe once a year.
She has given up talking to anyone, she has nothing left to live for. Her past life has faded into a blur, so even her memories are shadows. Every single day is the same as the one before.
'One day something unusual happens that she cannot help noticing. There is a dog in the room, a large golden dog that wags its tail'
One day something unusual happens that she cannot help noticing. There is a dog in the room, a large golden dog that wags its tail and comes up to nuzzle her hand. She cries, because suddenly she remembers her old dog and how she had to leave it when she came to the home. But the tears are a release, and the dog becomes her friend who comes to see her every week, with the kind lady who owns him.
The dog is a P.A.T. Dog, a PRO-Dog Active Therapy visiting dog, one of over 4,500 who regularly visit the sick, the elderly, the mentally disturbed, the blind, the deaf, in homes and hospitals all over the United Kingdom.
The whole thing started in 1976 when Lesley Scott Ordish, a magistrate and freelance journalist, decided to form a national charity to counteract the growing intolerance to dogs in our society; to promote better understanding and attitudes; to encourage better dog ownership; to take educational programmes into schools; and to provide medical and veterinary advice and information in a realistic and useful way. PRO Dogs stands for Public Relations Organisation for Dogs.
In June 1983, the first pilot for PAT Dogs took place in Derbyshire. Even Lesley Scott Ordish could not have dreamed that this would grow to the extent that PRO-Dogs have now registered over 4,500 PAT Dogs. These dogs are temperament-tested, registered and provided with an identification disc, and are then sent to visit homes and hospitals nearby. There are local PAT Dog coordinators in most areas to ensure that everything runs smoothly. The coordinators are in touch with all the homes and all the visiting teams.
'When a patient looks at a dog, strokes him and talks to him, the blood pressure goes down, temperature decreases and a sense of well-being increases'
PAT Dog visiting fulfils a very important need. So many people have to part with their pets when they go into homes. Many of them become withdrawn, morose and unhappy. On many occasions the visits have changed the lives and improved the happiness of the elderly in institutions. It gives them a point of communication, and it has been proved and well documented that physical contact with a pet is therapeutic. An inherent trait in humans is the need for attachment to others. Visiting dogs, who always visit on a regular basis, provide that attachment. When a patient looks at a dog, strokes him and talks to him, the blood pressure goes down, temperature decreases and a sense of well-being increases. PAT Dogs provide the undiscriminating affection that everyone needs.
Likewise in the States there are 8,000 registered therapy dogs, according to Paula Cingota, who runs the San Diego branch of Therapy Dogs International, each insured for $1 million, and with some working with terminal cancer patients in hospices.
Adapted from a piece by Edridge, with additional information from the Examiner (USA), monitored for the Institute by Roger Knights.
The health benefits of pets
Summarised from a story by Gail Vines, entitled 'Secret power of pets' in New Scientist (Oct 9th '93), and another by Nigel Hawkes, entitled 'Pets are good for you', in The Times.
For reasons which remain obscure, research confirms that pet ownership does bring significant health benefits. Amongst the general population, dog and cat owners have lower blood pressure, are more likely to recover after a heart attack, and are less troubled by minor complaints like headache, backache and flu.
The connection was first made by graduate student Erica Friedmann, who discovered the correlation almost accidentally whilst researching survival rates from heart attack in the 1980s. Since then, numerous other studies have attempted to explain the effects with reference to increased exercise levels, personality type, and so on - without much success. The most likely explanation, it seems, remains the obvious one: that we benefit from the uncritical, more or less unconditional affection which animals seem to offer. Bearing this in mind, the Joseph Rowntree Trust has publicly attacked the very limited provision in residential nursing homes for old people to keep their pets.
This would also help explain the success of American psychiatrist Boris Levinson in his work in the 1960s with severely withdrawn children. These children were so traumatised that they shied away from all contact with other people. They did not have the same terror, however, of Levinson's dog Jingles. By carefully insinuating himself into the child-dog relationship - which was struck up quite easily - Levinson was able to gain the trust of his patients and help treat them.
Offsetting these health gains, of course, there are one or two hazards. A range of viruses and parasites can be contracted via pets, which have also been known to deliver some quite nasty bites.
See also In the Company of Animals by James Serpell (Basil Blackwell, 1986).
- Lesley Scott-Ordish, Rocky Bank, 4 New Road, Ditton, Maidstone, Kent ME20 6AD (tel 01732 848499 or 01732 872222). This scheme was a highly commended Social Inventions Award winner.
- Michaela Edridge, 267 Hillbury Road, Warlingham, Surrey CR3 9TL.
- Society for Companion Animal Studies, c/o Anne Docherty, The Mews Cottage, 7 Botanic Crescent Lane, Glasgow G20 8AA (tel 0141 9452088).