Crea­ture com­forts

THE PRES­I­DENT OF CA­NINE FRIENDS PET THER­APY IS USED TO PEO­PLE LOOK­ING STRAIGHT PAST HER OR PEEK­ING OVER HER SHOUL­DER, BUT ANN EVANS IS HAPPY TO STEP ASIDE AND LET HER FURRY STARS SHINE

NZ Life & Leisure - - Way Of Life - WORDS: C HERE E MOR­RI­SON

SO­PHIE WAS JUST two years old when she first donned a red ban­dana and took on the role of a life­time. That was a big day. The cheer­ful ac­ces­sory came with great re­spon­si­bil­ity, some­thing very new for a pup whose wak­ing hours nor­mally re­volved around try­ing to catch her own tail and mak­ing sure her brother Oakie (AKA Okie Dokie) didn’t steal her favourite sunny spot on the deck. A decade on, and while So­phie’s hear­ing and eye­sight are “se­lec­tive”, says her owner Ann Evans, the ban­dana still evokes puppy-like en­thu­si­asm. Her big brown eyes twin­kle as she hops from side to side on saucer-sized feet. It’s time for her favourite job.

Golden re­triever So­phie is one of 600 dogs in New Zealand en­rolled in Ca­nine Friends Pet Ther­apy. As com­mit­ted vol­un­teers So­phie and Ann have been do­nat­ing their time to rest homes, hos­pi­tals, hos­pices and schools through­out Manawatu for 10 years. If some­one needs a dog to cud­dle whether for stress re­lief, a dis­trac­tion from a med­i­cal is­sue or for com­pany, the team, and a colour­ful col­lec­tion of pooches, is never far away. Ca­nine Friends be­gan in Welling­ton 28 years ago. Now the na­tion­wide pro­gramme has more dogs than one could toss a ten­nis ball to. All breeds (apart from those banned in New Zealand) are po­ten­tial vol­un­teers. They must be over a year old, and un­dergo a tem­per­a­ment and good-be­hav­iour assess­ment to see how they re­act to cer­tain sit­u­a­tions. All the dogs are pets and don’t re­ceive spe­cial­ized train­ing; they just need to be calm and gen­tle, love a good pat and be at ease as the cen­tre of at­ten­tion. There are no pre­ferred breeds; the ban­danas fit ev­ery­thing from a chi­huahua to a saint bernard, but the most com­monly en­rolled are golden re­triev­ers (sweet and soft), labradors (gen­tle and kind) and grey­hounds (out­stand­ingly lazy and beloved by older gen­tle­men who en­joy a good yarn about the races).

Ann lives in ru­ral Ōhin­gaiti, north-east of Bulls, with hus­band Paul and their mot­ley crew of canines: six work­ing dogs plus a few young­sters in train­ing and their three beau­ti­ful “but use­less” pets. Ann was a city girl un­til she met farmer Paul. So be­gan a love story not only with her hus­band-to-be but with his dogs. Over the years, the cou­ple has raised mul­ti­ple lit­ters of re­triever pup­pies and is heav­ily in­volved in the na­tional sheep­dog tri­als (Paul and his pack have won many ac­co­lades). “My first dog was a golden cocker spaniel that Paul gave me as a wed­ding present in 1976,” ex­plains Ann. Her first golden re­triever fol­lowed in the late 1990s. “I had al­ways loved re­triev­ers. They love to meet peo­ple, love to please – and their tem­per­a­ment is al­most bombproof. Peo­ple can’t help them­selves; the dogs bring out a de­sire to con­nect and cud­dle.”

Most weeks Ann loads up the car with So­phie, Oakie or new­bie Thumpa, and heads into Feild­ing, Mar­ton and/or Whanganui to visit the lo­cal rest homes. Their vis­its are sched­uled and much an­tic­i­pated. “The dogs are great con­ver­sa­tion starters. If I were to walk in alone, no one would no­tice me, but if I have the dog, we’re the cen­tre of at­ten­tion. They melt the ice – some­times we’ll have res­i­dents who may not speak to any­one, who aren’t happy where they are, but will open up to the dogs and en­joy their com­pany. It’s a very spe­cial thing to be able to bring a smile to their face.”

Ann and the three­some also pop into Massey Univer­sity dur­ing study week to help stu­dents ex­pe­ri­enc­ing high lev­els of stress prior to ex­ams. “It’s bril­liant – you see the stu­dents walk­ing in look­ing com­pletely over it, as if they just can’t take any more, and then they just light up.” Re­hab and chil­dren’s wards, ICU units, as well as hos­pices have also em­braced the pro­gramme, open­ing their doors to well-suited dogs for a few mo­ments of pure hap­pi­ness.

Although the round-trip vis­its take sev­eral hours and some­times feel like an ef­fort, Ann in­vari­ably re­turns home con­tent. “I’ve never left a visit without laugh­ing or smil­ing. I’ve had staff stop me and say, ‘You don’t re­al­ize what you’ve done today.’ These dogs make the res­i­dents’ or pa­tients’ day; they make them talk, think and smile, and that’s our goal. They aren’t spe­cial dogs, just or­di­nary, lovely pets bring­ing hap­pi­ness to peo­ple who need it.”

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