Story by Janine Duncan from Volunteering Northland
St John Therapy Pets programme provides much-needed learning assistance, support and social interaction to children and adults of all ages in schools, residential care, mental health and rehabilitation facilities, dementia wards, hospitals, and libraries.
Research has found animal supported therapy beneficial in reducing stress and anxiety due to illness or being elderly. Pets are extremely therapeutic as they are non-judgmental, non-critical, accepting of disability and illness while also providing ‘’unconditional’’ love and companionship. Due to positive outcomes in the United States, Bob and Iris Kerridge initiated the pet therapy programme under SPCA Auckland in 1988. Although jointly administered by both St John and SPCA Auckland for many years, St John is now the sole provider.
St John Therapy Pets also administer the Animal Assisted Education Programme. As a result of overseas success, the programme is delivered in schools to those children who become stressed or self-conscious while learning to read. Reading out loud to a dog present has been found to lessen anxiety due to an animals’ non-critical nature. Other positive outcomes of participation include an increased likelihood of self-correction and attempting to pronounce unfamiliar vocabulary.
Currently, there are 320 St John pet therapy volunteers and a similar number of animals involved nationwide. Thirteen members are based in Whangarei with three volunteers undergoing recruitment. However, additional volunteers and pets are always most welcome due to ongoing demand. Once fully trained, the minimum time commitment is one hour per week.
Recruitment involves an interview, police and reference check. Pets are also assessed for their suitability with an ideal therapy pet enjoying human contact, being responsive to basic commands and feeling at ease with both children and adults. Volunteers must be able to keep their pets under control and gauge when stressed or uncomfortable. Once suitability has been established, volunteers undergo training specific to the role. While dogs are the most common therapy pet, some miniature ponies are also utilised. Cats may be considered, however they would need to be happy wearing a harness and possess a very calm nature.
Reasons for volunteering typically involve a desire to give back to the community, engaging in a volunteer activity alongside their beloved animal, “sharing their pet” and providing extra happiness and joy to someone’s day. According to Pam Hall, St John Community Care Manager, “If you want to support your community, love meeting people, have a friendly, well-behaved family dog (or another pet) that also loves meeting people, then St John Therapy Pets is the role for you. You will not only bring joy to others, but you will also receive a great deal of satisfaction and joy in return.”