I have had a growing and very positive response to my appeal for volunteers’ stories, and this week I discovered that volunteering is not just about people who help other people. It is also about the animals who help spread their own very special kind of joy and well-being too!
I recently met up with Lindsey who participates in a ‘Pets as Therapy’ (PAT) programme with her seven-year-old Siberian Huskie ‘Shadow’. Both Lindsey and Shadow volunteer for an organisation called WAG & Co. Whereby, as a dog befriending service pets are taken to visit Care Homes, or individuals within their own homes, to cheer up isolated and vulnerable older people. To create and retain a professional image, all volunteers wear badges (with photos of dog and owner), they wear donated polo shirts with the organisations logo, and the dogs get to wear very smart bandanas too! WAG & Co is a North East Charity (based in Hexham), set up in 2016, It now has over 100 volunteers (a mixture of Home Visiting Teams and Care Homes Visitors). However, demand is high so the organisations long term goal is to eventually recruit at least 1000 volunteers.
Lindsey, who works full time at a Veterinary Practice also finds time to visit at least 1 of 3 Care Homes on her weekly ‘rolling’ rota, with her canine pal. Their visit, she says can often have quite dramatic results. Even residents who can be “a bit aggressive, become calm when they’re around him”. In fact, “One man who is normally very ‘stand-offish’ and likes to be totally alone, loves our visits. As soon as he sees Shadow he gives him lots of cuddles, he gets very emotional, its so lovely to see.” It appears that Shadow is also very intuitive, “he has a knack of knowing who needs him” and she laughs “he also knows who has got the food!”
Lindsey has a history of working with people in the Care Sector as a care assistant in Accident and Emergency and in Care Homes and a Hospice. This along with her current work for a Vet, and as a lifelong dog lover makes her voluntary role feel “quite a natural progression really”.
Her volunteering career began after WAG & Co came into her employers practice to deliver a talk. (Apparently, the practice adopted the charity as their ‘designated’ charity and now volunteer dogs get discounted treatment as a thank you for all their hard work!) After the talk Lindsey was so impressed by what they did, she immediately filled in the on-line form, which she says was relatively easy to do. She subsequently had an interview and a CRB (police) check. Then Lindsey and Shadow had quite an in depth dog behaviour test to make sure she had total control over him at all times. Shadows reaction to shocks, surprises and loud noise was also assessed, and he passed with flying colours.
Once her police clearance arrived Lindsey was given a choice of opportunities and chose Care Homes in her own locality. On her first visit however she says she didn’t really know what to expect. Because, “even though Shadow is normally very calm and passed the behaviour test I was still a bit worried about his reaction if people were a bit rough with him”. In fact, she needn’t have worried as Shadow was very relaxed and obedient. Lindsey laughed at this idea pointing out that Shadow was recently visited by 24 Brownies who visited the Vets Practice and he quite calmly enjoyed having his tail and legs bandaged and his heart listened to by this group of excitable young ladies!
Shadow is a bit of a ‘show off’ and loves to dress up and will normally dress up for events such as Christmas and Halloween. Indeed, Lindsey recently made Christmas Cards for residents, which went down very well, using photos of Shadow (dressed up as usual!) It appears that Shadow loves his volunteering role so much now that even when it’s not a visiting day he tries to drag Lindsey up the path when they walk past one of the Homes! When asked what she brings to her role, she said “I don’t really feel as though I do anything to be honest, its Shadow who makes the difference! But I do feel very good when we leave.”
According to Lindsey she has had great support from Diane (the Charity Director) and Heather (the Charity Office Manager) and feels she has been made 100% welcome by the residents and staff at the Homes she visits. Diane and Heather give her any assistance or guidance she requires and she feels free to email, text or face-time them whenever there is an issue, or even if she just wants a chat. The Activities Coordinators at the Homes also give her support, as well as feedback about the impact of her visit. Each week Lindsey discusses with care staff who is most likely to benefit from a visit (as depending upon a residents mood at the time, not everyone may benefit from the experience at any given time) and after each visit she fills in a ‘Visit Report’.
Lindsey feels that her biggest problem so far has been “when I’m unable to visit due to holiday or illness. You see some of the residents are aware of when visits are due and I feel really guilty if I can’t get there for any reason, like I’ve really let people down”. However, THE most positive thing about volunteering has been people’s reactions to seeing Shadow, “sometimes it makes me want to cry” It can be a small reaction or it can be huge. For example, “you see some people who have lost the ability to react to other stimulus, but then they do react to Shadow!”