Charities are seeking dog-owning volunteers to visit the elderly and unwell in the Borders and north Northumberland.
Now a co-ordinator and assessor, Ray Nicholson was a volunteer with Pets as Therapy when he moved to Foulden, near Berwick, in 2002.
He and rescued Polish Lowland Sheepdog Benji visited and cheered people for 10 years until Benji’s death two years ago.
Ray said: “The best thing Benji and I got out of it was just to see the look on people’s faces change.
“In a lot of cases you could see and feel the despair for whatever their conditions, young or old, but within moments that smile came and then after about five or 10 minutes with each person, they were quite content.
“And I tell my volunteers not to forget the staff when they are visiting – a lot of them need the kind of stress-losing powers that a dog can give.”
Pets as Therapy’s local Border Reivers group has 20 volunteers from as far afield as Bonnyrigg and Amble. Volunteer canines have ranged from a Newfoundland, Alsatian and mongrels to possibly a chihuahua, which Ray was assessing in Duns before Christmas.
Volunteer owners include nurses, a teacher, a policewoman and others, and visits take place to hospitals, hospices, care homes, schools and other places.
Ray says it doesn’t matter what breed the dog is: “It really just depends on the temperament and the relationship between the animal and the handler.
“We have to know the handler is going to be in control of the dog at all times. Dogs stay on leads at all times during a visit.”
Meanwhile, Therapets, a similar charity, are seeking more volunteers in the region. The charity’s local representative is Marion Livingston, from near Melrose, who started visiting with the family whippet four years ago.
She said: “Stroking or holding a dog or cat can slow down a person’s heartbeat, making heart attacks less likely, as well as decreasing stress, blood pressure and even blood glucose in diabetics. Pet therapy can help patients with long-term chronic ill health, as well as comforting those who are anxious or depressed.”
Volunteer Glynis Sawyers has two Therapets and visits Knowesouth Care Home in Jedburgh.
She said: “So many residents in care homes have had their own dogs in the past and miss them terribly, so to have a visit from a nice, friendly dog means the world to them. Wherever I go with either Peggy or Cleo, everyone immediately has a smile on their face, and the staff say the residents are happy when they know that it is our day to visit.”
Audrey Laycock, who visits several Borders General Hospital units, says: “As most of my visiting is to the dementia assessment unit, feedback from patients is small, but staff tell me that some patients are calmer and more relaxed after seeing the dogs, and our visits give patients something to look forward to and to focus on.”
Irene Scott, who visits the Katherine Elliot Centre in Hawick, said: “People often say how happy they feel when they stroke Heidi’s (her Labrador) ears and head. One chap, who can no longer have a dog, is not very talkative, but when he is walking Heidi with me, he has a beaming smile on his face and will chat away merrily as he is much more relaxed.”
The most recent local Therapet recruit is a Pomerarian who, with her owner Lee Muir from Gordon, visits Oakview day care centre in Galashiels.
Lee said: “I decided to let Billi Jean ‘apply’ to become a Therapet because she has given me so much comfort and joy when dearly needed. Despite being extremely childish at times, she brings a smile to everyone’s face.”
As well as potential volunteers, Marion hopes care homes, day care centres and other places might get in touch to request visits.
For more information on Pets as Therapy visit www.petsastherapy.org or contact the charity’s Wendover office on 01844 345445 and for more information about Therapets email marion at email@example.com or call Lesley Bird at the Therapet office on 0131 553 0034.