I have always wanted to be a member of the SPCA Dog Squad. I’ve owned Curly-Coated Retrievers since 1995, but my previous Curlies, for various reasons, were not suitable: too bouncy, dribbled, didn’t like children. And then, two years ago, I adopted Jack. I soon realised he was a perfect mix of cheerfulness and calm, an important quality for a therapy dog.
Our first ‘job’ as a member of the SPCA Dog Squad, with our coordinator, was to the children’s ward at the Dunedin Public Hospital. Who was more nervous, Jack or me? It was hard to tell.
Little hands were all over his face and back, but he seemed not to mind. I was amazed how calm he was. And the joy on the children’s faces when they saw a ‘doggie’ in the hospital! Sick children respond strongly to the touch of a warm, furry dog. They have their own soft toys, but to have the real animal to cuddle and pat brings smiles and laughter.
Jack knows when it is ‘work day’. His harness is on, and the moment he arrives at the rest home, hospice, residential care home or hospital, he is on duty. Dogs have an innate sense of people’s emotional and physical condition.
We make a regular visit to a rest home, where he encounters people who need all levels of care, including bedridden patients, those with dementia or locked in syndrome. On one occasion, the staff asked how Jack and I would feel about visiting a dying lady. We didn’t hesitate. She was at a grand age, and a huge supporter of the SPCA. We entered her room, and he went straight to her, placing his head close to her hand. She was very aware of his presence and smiled as she stroked his head. He continued to stand quietly. The light in her eyes when she saw Jack – this was so moving, and still stays with me. When he came home he slept all afternoon. The dogs are sometimes exhausted after their visits.
Different situations ask for different reactions from the dogs, and they need to be able to adapt quickly. I like to help Jack settle before we meet each person. For example, we spend a little time with rest home staff before Jack is introduced to the residents. He has a favourite cook or two at various rest homes!
Quick or erratic movements by a patient can be alarming for dog. But Jack has a knack of calming people. I have never been worried for the patient or for Jack. The interaction between patient and dog is mutual.
We have visited the assessment ward at Dunedin Public Hospital. The potential life changes involved with admission to this ward make this a trying time for patients and their families. Many of the patients have pets at home, and are missing them. A visit from the SPCA Dog Squad helps people feel less alone. My own mother was in this ward before she needed rest home care. I know she would have loved a visit from her ‘grand dogs’. My dogs were always so very aware of her frailty. They always approached her gently, drawing back as she stood up so as not to accidentally knock her.
Recently we, with several other SPCA Squad Dogs and their handlers, visited the University of Otago to give the Summer School students a ‘Cuddle Fix’. The students, away from home for the holidays and missing their own animals, were delighted to have this interaction.
Staff, visitors, residents or patients – everyone smiles to see a Dog Squad dog in their work place. Jack is a very special dog. I’m so glad he qualified to join the team. We both enjoy our volunteer work, and as long as Jack is happy we will continue to be proud members of the SPCA Dog Squad.
Joanne O’Carroll-McKellar: Joanne lives at St Clair, Dunedin, New Zealand.