Dogtober was started by Assistance Dogs Australia to recognise the contribution that dogs make to our health and wellbeing. Interaction with a gentle and friendly dog has been shown to ease feelings of isolation and depression and provides comfort. It encourages communication and reduces boredom.
Maple the PAWS pet therapy dog regularly does ward rounds at Lifehouse with her owner Tara.
Maple has had special training to be a pet therapy dog which involves being taught appropriate ways to behave and respond. These dogs need to be well socialised and have good obedience skills. All pet therapy dogs are clean, vaccinated and meticulously groomed to meet the infection control requirements of the hospital.
Lifehouse volunteer Annie Welch regularly accompanies Maple on her ward rounds, to help identify which patients would like a visit. Annie has been a volunteer at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse since the day it opened. Almost everyone in her immediate family has been affected by cancer so when she heard that Lifehouse was being built, she wanted to come and help.
She says: “Pet therapy is very calming, it brings joy. I think she takes their minds off what they are going through and brings a bit of normality back into their lives. I see people’s faces light up as soon as Maple enters the room. For many, it’s a bit of home.”
A devoted dog-lover, Annie saw how her own dog reacted when her mother was released from hospital after surgery. Her mother was 80 years old and Annie had a large, boisterous dog. “I was terrified of putting them together but it just worked,” she says. “The dog calmed my Mum down and acted as her companion. I love the idea of a dog being able to bridge the gap between a person and their illness.”
For Annie, helping patients isn’t about who you are or what your background is, what’s important is how you connect. “It works both ways. A lot of volunteers come away from here feeling joyful because of the conversations they’ve had and the connections they’ve made.”
Being with cancer patients has given Annie insight into what her family members went through. “By being around people who are going through the same thing, you learn to empathise. I think empathy is the most important emotion in the world.”
It’s not just the patient that benefits from pet therapy. Friends and family say they feel better too. And the staff often say: “Don’t forget us, we need some Maple love too.”
People find it hard to believe Maple is a rescue dog because of her sweet nature. “She’s very clever and has a range of tricks but she also understands when patients just want some quiet comfort.”
Here’s Maple visiting patients on her rounds last week, and Annie with her dog Macey.