How PAT dog visits can help elderly people

PUBLISHED: 15:13 14 August 2017

Geoff Orr pets Rowan as owner Noel Austin looks on (Photo by Jim Holden)

Geoff Orr pets Rowan as owner Noel Austin looks on (Photo by Jim Holden)

Jim Holden 07590 683036 01825 841157

Elderly people are often unable to have pets, at the very time companionship is most needed. So PAT dog visits can be keenly anticipated and have profound results, as Jenny Mark-Bell discovers on a visit to Heather View Care Home in Crowborough

Noël Austin has a soft spot for her dogs. So it is appropriate that an injury to her Achilles tendon was the catalyst for her 30-year volunteering career with Pets as Therapy.

She wanted to give something back to Crowborough Hospital, where she’d had her physiotherapy. “As soon as I could walk again I went up there and asked the matron if she’d be interested in having us visit.”

That was in 1986, when Pets as Therapy was only three years old. Noël had a registered PAT dog but the care home she was supposed to be visiting decided they no longer wanted the dog’s services. “They said they’d only just got people weaned off their own dogs. I asked if I could bring her up to the hospital and the matron’s eyes lit up. She said ‘Yes. You can go and see Edna – she hates people but adores dogs.’

“Apparently she would pull people’s hair, rip their uniforms and scratch them. I very tentatively took my dog to see her and never once did I have an unkind word, never once did she show any anger: all she wanted to do was have the dog next to her. This went on for years and years and when Edna died we duly went along to the funeral, with the dog standing and sitting at all the right moments.”

Noël, a former primary school teacher, limited her volunteering to Crowborough Hospital until she retired – now her Pets as Therapy work takes her all over the region. She has been a voluntary area co-ordinator for the charity for about ten years, overseeing 200 volunteers and an area including parts of Surrey, Kent and West and East Sussex. Rowan, who is accompanying her on today’s visit to Heather View Care Home, is Noël’s tenth generation of home-bred golden retriever PAT dogs. The youngest dog, Pipper, goes into the school where Noël used to teach, to help children with their reading. The oldest, Marnee, is the 2015 winner of PAT Dog of the Year at Crufts.

Rowan, who is ten, does all sorts of visiting but Noël and her dogs have a long relationship with Heather View Care Home on Beacon Road. Heather View has three floors, comprising a dementia suite, a nursing suite and a residential suite. Andrea Butler is the lifestyle coordinator. She explains what the PAT dog visits provide: “Pure joy and comfort. There was a lady earlier who was quite tearful and literally within minutes of having the dog with her she was smiling and so much more relaxed.”

Noël is clearly moved by the interaction. “Every so often you will get a moment like that, and it’s magic. That will be one of my highlights of the year because it clearly meant so much to her.

“At times like that there’s nothing better than working with old people – they just come alive. It’s a talking point – it prompts communication and helps them recall their past. It also gives them a chance to have tactile experiences. There’s one lovely lady who is blind and when we bring Marnee in to her she puts her hands on her and ruffles her fur. It’s moments like that when you realise just what animal-assisted therapy is all about.”

Noël mentions research being undertaken at Southampton Children’s Hospital working with Pets as Therapy, the Royal College of Nursing and Humanimal Trust into how animals can work with children. “I’m hoping that when they have done the research into children they will do the same with older people,” she says.

This particular care home takes animal-assisted therapy seriously – according to Andrea Butler, “People often say that the one thing they miss is having their animals around. As well as having the PAT dog visits, we welcome families to bring their animals in. We also have a company that comes in with a whole range of animals – one day they’ll bring chickens and rabbits and then another day they’ll bring in ponies. The Shetland ponies have visited several times – they come up in the lift and then greet everybody. The residents absolutely love it.”

Today there’s quite a festive atmosphere – Rowan and Noël have already toured the home visiting dog-loving residents and now a handful of others are waiting for their turn to pet the placid retriever. Florence Martin looks forward to these visits because she misses her own poodles. The Uckfield native, 86, says “We have things like this going on all the time, not just once in a while. It’s very difficult to say what my favourite activity is: we have exercises, we have art class and I do like that. I can’t choose because they’re all perfect.”

According to Noël, the most important quality for a human volunteer is: “Patience. And you need a sense of humour. One day a lady who didn’t have very good co-ordination managed to throw her chocolate drink over Marnee and me. We were absolutely covered. You never know what’s going to happen!

“I’m just the person who brings the dog – it is the dog that’s the most important thing. A lot of people don’t ever talk to me. A lot of them can’t talk to me – but they can talk to the dog.”

As for the animal, she says: “I believe a dog can either do this or they can’t. They have to be born with this wonderful temperament, this ability to love people and to respect rules when they are visiting. The dog must always come first – they don’t ask to do this, we ask it of them. But in the main they love doing it.”

For information about joining or donating to Pets as Therapy, go to


How a dog is helping Portslade pupils with their reading - Children at Peter Gladwin School in Portslade are learning to love reading with the help of Taboo, a Pets as Therapy dog. Jenny Mark-Bell finds out more

Shop with us at Great British Life

More from Pets

Tracey Kavanagh’s gifted black labradors were talent-spotted at an agility competition, for key acting roles in Netflix behemoth The Crown.

Read more
Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Pets can give you companionship inside and outside your home.

Read more

Latest from the Sussex Life