When dogs become therapists

Golden doodle puppy

It’s a sunny day shortly before Christmas and Murphy-Brown is entertaining the crowd. “We call him Murphy-Brown the Wonder Dog,” says owner Deborah King. “Because we wonder if he’ll behave.”

Murphy-Brown, a Golden Retriever/Poodle cross has heard the joke before, so he doesn’t react. Instead, he patiently watches Deborah’s hand signals. “Is it Sunday?” she asks. Murphy-Brown doesn’t react. “Is it Tuesday?”

When she gives the right signal, Murphy-Brown woofs, to the delight of everyone watching. At another signal the dog takes a bow, stretching out his front paws. Murphy-Brown really is a wonder dog, because he’s made the faces around him light up with pleasure.

Deborah and Murphy-Brown are visiting Sydney’s Wahroonga Nursing Home, on a Pets as Therapy visit. They have spent months rehearsing their routine, plus going over a host of health and safety rules. Now, they visit the Home once a month dressed in their Pets as Therapy gear – a bright yellow t-shirt for her, a fetching yellow scarf for him – where they’re met by Lea Ireland, the Recreational Activity Officer. “This is a wonderful programme,” says Lea. “It helps with sensory communication.”

While the Home has its own bird, keeping a cat or a dog is too difficult to manage, partly because of health and safety issues. Most of the residents are so frail that their skin is like paper, and it will tear easily if an animal gets playful. “Or animal saliva might cause an infection,” says Lea. “And then there’s the issue of who’s going to take responsibility for the care of the animal.”

So everyone is thrilled when Deborah comes calling with the placid Murphy-Brown.

Animal therapy

The benefits of having animals in medical and care facilities has long been recognised: The NSW Department of Health issued formal guidelines for the use of ‘therapy companion animals’ in public and private hospitals in 2006. The guidelines list a range of benefits from animal contact, from increased alertness to reduced anxiety. The mood certainly brightens when Murphy-Brown and Deborah stroll into the day room. Although it’s a comfortable, bright room filled with Christmas decorations and the promise of festivities to come, there’s very little talk, very little movement from the residents. Some are just too sick. Others are too withdrawn. But Murphy-Brown captures their attention. Lea touches each individual on the arm and asks them if they’re interested in meeting the dog.

“This is Joan,” she says, introducing one lady sitting at the table. Later, she tells us that Joan is so deaf she’s almost totally isolated from the world. But Joan reaches down and pats Murphy-Brown, enjoying the contact. Another woman suddenly strikes up a conversation, telling Deborah that she grew up on a farm, where dogs were working animals, not pets. Another signals eagerly, looking forward to her chance to meet the dog; for some people it’s the dog that’s the attraction, for others it’s spending time with Deborah. In her early forties, Deborah has a warm personality and a knack for making people feel special.

“You’re obviously good with dogs,” Deborah tells one, projecting her voice without shouting. “Murphy-Brown has taken to you,” she tells another. They bask in the attention of this attractive, vibrant woman.

After the visit in the day room is over, Lea takes Deborah to see some of the bed-bound residents. There’s one particular man she wants the pair to visit.

“This gentleman is new,” she says. “His mind is in perfect working order, but his body doesn’t work any more. He’s very angry at the situation he’s in.”

No wonder. The man in question has pinned pictures of his life and family all over his walls, as though he’s trying to block out the Home. Although he has books lying around his bed, he’s too weak to read much. He can barely reach over to pat Murphy-Brown. But when his hands finally touch the fur, he starts talking.

“I had eleven dogs once,” he said. “And a three-legged wombat. On the farm. I rescued them.”

As Deborah listens and smiles, he keeps opening up, telling tales of his farm and his wombat, until he’s too exhausted to continue.

“He’s never said those things before,” says Lea afterwards. “I didn’t know half of that about him.” She’s really pleased, saying the man is clearly more cheerful. “That happiness will last for a while, and when his family sees him, they’ll see someone who isn’t unhappy and angry. That will make them feel happier.

Murphy-Brown has made a tiny gain in happiness that will ripple out to touch other people. It’s a scene that’s being repeated in nursing homes and hospitals around Australia—but one that’s a relatively recent phenomenon.

Deep communication

One of the people who turned the tide in Australia is Joan Sturzaker, who was honoured with a Medal of the Order of Australia for her pioneering work.

“I can remember my father was in hospital and he was really sick, but we had to take our dogs and cats down to show him through the window,” says Joan. “The nursing home woman wouldn’t let them be there.”

As a schoolgirl, Joan volunteered at the Lort Smith Animal Hospital in Melbourne. Later, after school, she became employed there, and founded their outreach program in 1984. She vividly remembers the first time she took animals along for a visit at the Mount Royal psychiatric hospital.

“I thought, how will I ever get them there?” recalls Joan. She took along a box of cats and opened them on a table. The man sitting next to the table exclaimed over how beautiful they were. “He’d never spoken, not in the six months he’d been there, but he started to talk about his dogs and how he’d walked along the river with him.”

Joan says the reaction to animals can be miraculous. “You go in and everybody is slumped, and then the whole room livens up. We used to take birds, cat, dogs, everything, in a big van that would break down going up hills. The old farmers used to like seeing lambs.”

The hero of Joan’s life, her Black German Shepherd cross Porter, who went visiting with her every week until his death. Today she has Coca the cat and Utah, a black Labrador cross, as companions. She says she can’t bear the thought of being in a nursing home without her animals. “It would be terrible, wouldn’t it?”

Unfortunately, too many people are in that position. Although the benefits of pet therapy are well recognised, there aren’t enough volunteers to do it. “I can be walking in the street and if I’ve got my pet therapy t-shirt on, people come up and ask me to volunteer,” says Deborah. “We have a long waiting list and not enough volunteers.”

If you’ve got a placid animal and you’re interesting in volunteering, it involves 50 hours of training, including an extensive theory course that covers safe interactions and gives an overview of the types of challenges facing people, from dementia to frailty. After graduation, volunteers need to commit to a once-a-month visit. “So many people make promises, but they don’t follow through,” says Lea, adding the Home is immensely grateful to Deborah.

Deborah says the reason she’s involved is because “I’m doing it for myself”, because watching people light up makes it all worthwhile.

As for Murphy-Brown, he’s not saying what he gets out of it. But he’s just had an hour of pats, cuddles and smiles—and a small stash of food rewards, courtesy of Deborah’s bag. As he finally heads out the door into the sunlight, his tail is wagging. Maybe pet therapy is good for him, too.

Felicity Carter


This article originally appeared in Bark! magazine, in 2007.