WORDS Kim Newth PHOTOS Sarah Rowlands

Something melts inside when we meet Canine Friends Pet Therapy star Jess at Burwood Hospital as she prepares to make her rounds of the older persons’ health wards with owner Carol Millican.

The young border collie has big fluffy ears, bright eyes and a sweet way with strangers. Passing hospital visitors and staff lavish her with pats and compliments and Jess accepts all the attention happily with generous good grace.

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Carol decided to get involved as a volunteer with Canine Friends Pet Therapy after retiring from nursing two years ago. Her dog Jess, whose temperament seems so naturally caring and calm, was the perfect partner for the role.

“When I first started out nursing in Scotland many years ago, people used to bring their pets in and I remember noticing then how much enjoyment they gave to patients ... On our first visit to Burwood, I think I was more apprehensive than Jess. She knows what to do; I’m just her person at the end of the lead! She seems to sense when people need a bit of attention and will go and sit at their feet or sit next to them.”

Lower Hutt dog breeder Eileen Curry and a group of like-minded friends founded Canine Friends Pet Therapy in 1990 to bring comfort to the sick and elderly. It has since grown into a network of 700 pet therapy dog teams visiting rest homes, hospices, and hospitals throughout New Zealand. Every dog joining Canine Friends Pet Therapy undergoes a temperament check to ensure they are suitable. If accepted, the owner and dog receive training and support before being matched with a rest home, hospital, or hospice.

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Jess wears her Canine Friends’ red scarf at a slightly rakish angle but is well-groomed for today’s visit and Carol keeps her on a lead at all times. They know their routine inside out.

“I generally park in the rear carpark and walk up with her, just to make sure she’s been to the toilet. I have to take her attention span into account, so we only visit for an hour; I keep a little ball in my bag as her special reward that I give to her at the end,” Carol said.

Carol takes care to respect patient privacy and only visits those who want to see Jess. Doctors, nurses and other staff love spending a few minutes with Jess too. “I’ve been told it makes their day.”

A visit from Jess often sparks off happy memories for elderly patients.

“If they’ve been a farmer, they’ll say, ‘she looks like a farm dog I used to have’. They may even call Jess by their old dog’s name...I’ve met people here who have lost their ability to speak, but when we go in they’ll smile – one man even started whistling. It can be quite emotional.”

As Canine Friends’ South Island field officer, Carol also enjoys liaising with head office
in Wellington and keeping them informed of local events and visits. In Canterbury, volunteers sometimes also take their dogs on group visits to large organisations, such as universities. The dogs can be a real comfort to students too at high-stress times, such as orientation week or in the lead-up to exams.

I ask Carol what she sees as the number one benefit of pet therapy. For her, it is all about putting smiles on people’s faces. As we watch Jess in action, we can certainly see the good that she’s doing.