The Norfolk therapy dogs for the elderly
- Credit: Archant
Pets as Therapy dogs bring joy to the lives of many - dogs like golden retriever Abbee
When the campaigner Lesley Scott-Ordish founded PAT Dogs, or Pets As Therapy, in 1983, her inspiration was seeing the trauma older people experience when they have to give up a cherished pet when going into care.
A trained journalist, she spent much of her life researching, investigating and writing about the bond between humans and animals, in particular dogs and wanted to create a national hospital visiting scheme where screened dog owners could bring comfort to the sick and elderly.
The therapeutic benefits of simply patting a dog were shown to be impressive and, with the full support of the Royal College of Nursing, a network of volunteers with friendly dogs was set up.
Pets as Therapy now has over 6,000 of these remarkable canines and their human companions. One of these exceptional dogs was to be a beautiful light-coloured female golden retriever born in Diss, who was bought as a puppy by Wendy Jones from Thorpe End, Norwich and given the name Abbee.
Abbee was Wendy's second golden retriever; she had moved from the farm where she grew up into a quiet residential area and was looking for a placid, amiable breed as a change from the more demanding border collies she had previously kept.
These natural traits were to prove fortuitous after the loss of Wendy's first retriever, Jemma, when a then 18-month-old Abbee became withdrawn.
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"To get Abbee out of her depression I found my third Goldie, Maezee, who gave her the companionship she was missing," Wendy recalls. "Once Abbee was back to her old self and having heard of PAT Dogs through a friend, I considered involving her in the scheme to stimulate her further."
Wendy already knew that Abbee was sensitive and simply lovely with people, so it was no surprise when she flew through her temperament test.
"Abbee and I met up with a coordinator from Pets As Therapy in a mutually agreed public place," explains Wendy.
"The coordinator observed how she coped with unexpected and possibly alarming events like something dropping - how well she could sit quietly during a conversation - checking that there was no mouthing, pawing or jumping up and ensuring she could go up to strangers nicely." When Abbee first experienced people stroking her, it was then that her excellent temperament and almost uncanny air of calm came to light.
Along with her grace, beauty and gentleness, it was this one characteristic for which she would be known and loved by all who worked with her and experienced her remarkable nature, from nursing homes, to dementia cafes, hospitals and schools.
It also saw her attend Crufts 2019 as a runner-up in the Therapy Dog of the Year Awards.
"One of Abbee's greatest achievements was with a nervous, lonely lady called Georgina at Springdale, a residential home near where I live and which I visit every three weeks," says Wendy. "Georgina initially wouldn't let Abbee anywhere near her. But very slowly she became more at ease and Abbee won her over.
"I think you could say that cuddling Abbee improved the last few months of her life."
Wendy made sure that every resident at Springdale who wanted to received some one-to-one contact with Abbee. The joy, emotional stability and reduction in anxiety they brought to lives in the community is appreciated by deputy manager Victoria Hooes.
"Wendy's visits are always very popular and leave residents with a positive, happy outlook on life," says Victoria. "Abbee provided friendship and affection."
The work of Pets As Therapy doesn't just focus on the older generation and Abbee worked closely with children at local junior schools in Cringleford and Old Catton.
They run a scheme called Read2Dogs aimed at helping inhibited children, or those who are behind with their reading, to gain confidence in relaxed environment. "There was this lad who was obviously afraid of dogs," Wendy remembers.
"His nervousness at reading also made it a challenge to bring him out of himself. When he first touched her gorgeous coat and looked into those deep, dark brown eyes," she says, "it was as if he'd found a friend he could trust."
But Abbee's story has a bittersweet ending. "On the Monday Abbee was visiting a residential home and the next day a school," says Wendy.
But it was following a visit to a hospital on the Wednesday that Wendy noticed something was wrong. Abbee had a very aggressive tumour of the heart and died very suddenly the next afternoon, leaving Wendy devastated.
"I'm so blessed that she was able to do the work she loved up until the end," she says.
The letters of condolence Wendy has received have come from the voluntary service manager and others at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, the bereavement project manager at Nelson's Journey, from the University of East Anglia and the many, many people who have all been touched by "a very special lady - adored by everyone," during her 10 years of work.
At least Wendy's and the local community's loss will be softened by Wendy's fifth golden retriever, year-old Lacee, who is being groomed to take on Abbee's work. Even at such a young age she has just passed her assessment with flying colours - just like her beloved older sister.
"Lacee has Abbee's gentleness, but also a lively streak," says Wendy. "She is perfect to carry on the legacy of a truly unforgettable dog."
Volunteering for Pets As Therapy:
The charity is always looking for PAT dog teams (owners and dogs) as there are nowhere near enough to meet the demand for visits. If you think that you and your dog might be a good match, go to: petsastherapy.org to find out about applying.