A dog as therapy

Emma is a beautiful Greyhound who helps people simply by being what she is. Every couple of weeks, she brings her sweet nature, calmness and beauty to an Alzheimer's "club" in Wellington - and the other day, I was lucky enough to see her do her magic.

The club's members and a few guests sat in a circle in the sunny front room of a bungalow. Emma's owner, Claire, held the leash while leading the dog from person to person. There were a lot of smiles and a lot of gentle pats for Emma, who responded with dignified tail-wags and glances from her soulful eyes. Besides being beautiful to look at, Emma was lovely to touch - the blue velour of her coat felt just like fine cloth.

Just by being there, Emma brought warmth, strength and calm to the group.

The visits are part of the programme of Canine Friends Pet Therapy. Claire has been a volunteer for the group for seven years, starting with her Greyhound Millie and then, on Millie's death in 2012, with Emma.

Emma was shy at first, says Claire. "But when she realised that people were very keen to stroke her and make a fuss of her, she learned to love visiting." Emma seems to know when it's a visiting day, Claire says, and she can't wait to be with the group.

Sitting next to me at the club gathering the other day was Jacqui Eyley, programme manager of Greyhounds As Pets. She said she was happy to watch one of GAP's adoptees play a helpful role in people's lives, and demonstrate what a peaceful, sociable breed Greyhounds are.

I tried to imagine the scene if Emma were replaced by one of my tiny Dachshunds. The energy level and mood would have been different; my Phoebe would have been charming but she would have brought scuffling, breathless activity to the group. Then I remember the time when my own father lived with dementia - and I remember how important calmness was, how different his quiet times were from the stressed times. I suppose you have to choose the right dog for the situation - Dachshund therapy is not Greyhound therapy.

But maybe one day there'll be a role for my scatty dog, if she settles down a bit.

Dogs already do an untold amount of good in the lives of their owners - in lifting our mood, lowering stress, forcing us to smile and laugh, giving us reasons to get outdoors and meet people. It's no surprise to me that dogs have a real healing effect. All over the world, doctors and other carers are recognising the power of dogs and other animals as aids in therapy and during tough times in people's lives.

(The charity Kotuku Foundation Assistance Animals Aotearoa does an amazing amount, and deserves its own blog post - which it will get, next week.)

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