Pet therapy

Posted on 14 August 2014

Eager to be more than just your best friend, dogs are now branching out into animal-assisted therapy. Find out more from Stellenbosch University researcher Dr Marieanna le Roux and Pets As Therapy area co-ordinator Sherri Farinha.

How long has Pets As Therapy been around and what do you do?
Sherri Farinha (SF): Pets As Therapy (PAT) was actually founded in the UK. In 2001, Hazel Hill brought the idea to South Africa, where it’s a non-profit organisation. We facilitate visits by accredited volunteers and their animal companions to residents or patients at a variety of organisations and facilities. Service dog owner Heidi Vollmer was the first volunteer in SA (she is pictured above with Olivia).

Dr Le Roux, how did you become interested in animal-assisted therapy?
Dr Marieanna le Roux (ML): One of my students introduced me to PAT. At that stage, I had a six-year-old boxer called Pietie. The two of us joined and from there I became interested in the field and started doing research.

Can you give us an overview of your research?
ML: My own doctoral studies focussed on the effects of an animal-assisted reading programme on the reading skills of grade-three children. We found that the children reading to the dogs had better word recognition and reading comprehension after a 10-week reading programme. I also have masters’ students doing research with animal-assisted activities with the elderly in retirement homes and one working with children with intellectual disabilities.

What are the benefits of animal-assisted therapy?
ML: It is good for your blood pressure, heart rate, depression, anxiety and loneliness.
SF: It also provides people in hospitals and other institutions with companionship. Often those people have had to give up their own animals, and can now pet animals and give them treats as before.

To whom would you recommend animal-assisted therapy?
ML: Animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities are for anyone. If you are a lonely person in a retirement home or a busy adolescent in a special school, animals can do you good. Your own dog at home will have a positive effect your blood pressure and heart rate.

Who can volunteer and how does it work?
SF: Any ordinary citizens who has well-trained and well-behaved dogs and who want to give up their time can join as a volunteer. A certified animal behaviourist then assesses their dog, which can be anything from a poodle to an Irish wolfhound. It’s all about the dog’s temperament. Is it friendly and tolerant? Can it deal with the unexpected? Once the dog has passed, the volunteer joins another volunteer for three visits before going off on their own. This can be at a retirement home or a school – the volunteer gets to pick where they want to help. They can visit people as often as they like, and the length of each visit will depend entirely on the mood on the day.

How many people and pets do you currently have on board?
SF: We have about 120 volunteers countrywide.

Do you work in all hospitals?
SF: Institutions themselves approach us if they want to use animal-assisted therapy. It depends on who’s in charge in a particular hospital and things like their perception of canine hygiene. Also, some patients are afraid of dogs. At the moment, demand is exceeding supply – so we need more volunteers!

If you’d like to volunteer, visit for the contact details of a co-ordinator in your area. You’ll also find links to Dr Le Roux’s research on the site.

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Published in Healthy Life

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