St John volunteers L-R Vicki Parry with Ada, Laura and Aldo Wells with Mika, Sandra Vandenberg and Loki, and Anne Shepherd with Oscar. Photo / Babiche Martens

Dogs That Do Good: Meet Some Of St John's Therapy Pets

These special volunteers have been providing furry support in the community

Meet Mika, Oscar, Ada and Loki, some of St John’s dedicated team of therapy pets bringing support and cheer to hospitals in Auckland.

These special dogs are part of a wider community of volunteer dogs and their owners who visit hospitals, schools, rest homes and rehabilitation centres through St John’s Outreach Therapy Pets programme.

Founded in 1998 in Auckland by the SPCA, the programme is now available nationwide and today is run solely by ambulance and community service St John.

The pets in this programme, which have included cats, reptiles, bunnies and birds, support people’s wellbeing by improving a range of physical, social, emotional and cognitive functions.

Oscar the griffon x shih tzu. Photo / Babiche Martens

Bonding with animals has myriad benefits, from reducing feelings of depression, loneliness, boredom, and anxiety, to controlling blood pressure, heightening sensations and stimulating the senses.

For St John Outreach Therapy Pets Auckland Hospital team leader and volunteer Laura Wells, it’s about bringing cheer to someone’s day.

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“I would genuinely say that this service really makes a person’s day. Being able to make a difference is one of the reasons I do this, and I know it’s why others do it too.”

Laura, who is Mika the samoyed’s owner (with husband and fellow volunteer Aldo), has been with the programme for seven years and says it’s not just the value that she and her team of volunteers bring to others, but what they get back too.

“I think you get back as much, if not more sometimes, than you put into the volunteering.”

Ada the Siberian husky. Photo / Babiche Martens

She and her team visit Auckland Hospital and Starship Children's Hospital on a roster of scheduled visits.

Laura says a typical Starship visit will see a hospital volunteer accompany volunteers and their dogs to the family room, where children and their families can come in for a cuddle.

For those who can’t leave their rooms, the dogs will do a ward walk and stand outside children’s rooms to say hello.

READ: What It's Like To Volunteer At An Animal Sanctuary For A Day

Sometimes they’re allowed to go into the room when a child is unable to leave their bed. No matter a child’s situation, a visit from the dogs brings smiles and delight, says Laura.

“Even when life’s been really tough for them and they’ve had a whole range of procedures or they’re sick from treatments or medications, the dogs can’t help but bring a smile to their face. It’s the comfort, being close to the dog that helps them. We get feedback from families who say, ‘We couldn’t get him out of his room and now, because the dog’s here, he’s going to get up and move.’ And that’s part of the healing process for them — moving around.”

Loki the staffy. Photo / Babiche Martens

Animals have a therapeutic effect through their unconditional love and friendship, and their non-judgmental relationship with people of all ages.

“Dogs don’t judge,” says Laura. They accept ailments, frailties, handicaps, confusion, and provide a calming presence that only an animal can.

St John’s Outreach Therapy Pets programme is looking for volunteers to continue its work in the community.

Prospective dogs and their owners go through an interview process that includes background and child protection checks, and the dog is assessed by a specialist.

The assesor looks for things like temperament, and a dog’s acceptance of loud noise, wheelchairs and any equipment that permanently or temporarily disabled people might need.

Mika the samoyed. Photo / Babiche Martens

“Compassion is key for someone who wants to volunteer. If they feel they have a dog that has the right temperament, and they’ve got the desire and the time to contribute, to make a difference, that would be amazing.”

If you are interested in finding out more about St John Therapy Pets email chsadmin@stjohn.org.nz

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