Ann Wilson dedicated her career to teaching Primary School students, with a focus on reading and literacy skills. When she retired in 2017 she became a Pets As Therapy volunteer, alongside her 12 year old golden labrador, Bella. We spoke to her about how therapy animals can support people who need care and why she decided to become a Pets As Therapy volunteer.
What made you decide to become a Pets As Therapy (PAT) volunteer?
When I retired I found that I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands, and I wanted to use some of it to support a cause I care about. I’ve always had dogs as pets, and I know that they make a real difference to me, calming me down when I feel stressed and offering comfort and companionship in my life. A friend of mine who volunteers with PAT knew I was looking for volunteering opportunities and suggested looking into becoming a Pets As Therapy volunteer. She told me about her visits to a residential home, how you could really see the residents relaxing when they were around her dog, Max, and that one lady with dementia even began to tell her about a dog she’d had earlier in life, something she would usually really struggle to talk about.
When I found out that Pets As Therapy also works with Children’s Hospitals and has a scheme ‘Read2Dogs’ focusing on improving children’s’ reading skills, I knew that it was something I wanted to be involved in, as I’d worked in children’s education all my working life. Being able to volunteer with my dog, Bella, was the icing on top of the cake, and she absolutely loves it too, being centre of attention and getting lots of cuddles!
What does a visit involve?
Every week Bella and I visit our local hospital. Before we leave our house I give Bella a wash so that we aren’t taking any unwanted germs with us into the hospital. Then I attach her PAT ID badge to her collar and make sure I’ve got my volunteer badge too, and we head off to the hospital.
At the moment we’re volunteering in the Children’s Ward, so once we get to the hospital we sign in there and say hello to the nurses – we usually see the same staff every week. Usually we then walk around the ward (Bella is always on a lead held by me) and stop to interact with children who seem interested in stroking Bella. As some of the children in the ward are there for long stays, we see some of the same faces each week. They really get to know Bella and their eyes light up when they see us come into the ward, it’s brilliant to see. We’re normally there for about an hour which gives us plenty of time to see lots of the children, and is enough for Bella too before she gets tired!
It’s so lovely to be able to bring some normality to these children in hospital who can be in quite stressful situations, and I’m really proud of Bella: she’s so calm and gentle with the children and you can just tell the difference she’s making for them.
How did you become a Pets As Therapy volunteer?
First of all, to become a volunteer with Pets As Therapy your animal has to be over 9 months old and have lived with you for 6 months or more. If that’s not an issue then you’ll fill in an application form on the Pets As Therapy website, which includes a couple of character references and a copy of your pet’s vaccination certificate. You’ll also pay a very small annual fee, which just goes towards covering the cost of your insurance.
Then you’ll be contacted by your local PAT assessor for an assessment. That isn’t as nerve-wracking as it sounds at all – they just want to check that your dog or cat is sociable and doesn’t react badly to new situations.
And then you’re all set! You’ll be sent an ID badge for you and your pet, and a car sticker to identify you. Pets As Therapy can find you placements in your local area, or if there’s a particular place you’d like to make visits you can enquire with them. There’s no set requirement of how often you need to make a visit as a Pets As Therapy volunteer: I started by just setting up a regular visit with my local hospital of one hour every week, and now I visit three times a week.
You can view all the details of the application process on the ‘join us’ section of the Pets As Therapy website.
If you don’t have a pet of your own, are there still ways to support Pets As Therapy?
Of course! As well as my volunteering I also fundraise on behalf of Pets As Therapy by hosting a monthly coffee morning at my local library, where I ask for donations for cups of tea and snacks – it’s a great chance to meet new people and to chat about what Pets As Therapy do as a charity too. You could do a sponsored run, ask for donations for your birthday, or host a bake sale at your workplace instead. You can also donate directly by giving a one-off donation, by setting up a regular annual payment, or by leaving a legacy gift to the charity.
There’s more information on how you can support Pets As Therapy financially here, or if you aren’t sure what the best option for you is, you can always contact the PAT team at email@example.com.