This week’s guest blog comes from our Explorer Laura and her lovable pooch Arlo. Laura shares her experience on volunteering Arlo to become a PAT (Pets As Therapy) dog.
Arlo's Experience on Becoming a Therapy Dog
Have you ever wondered how you could give back to your community without sacrificing your precious time with your pooch? We all lead such busy lives and if you are anything like me, the best part of my day is my evening walk with Arlo.
I hope our story below will inspire one or all of you to take a look at the Pets As Therapy website and consider if your pup would be suitable.
Why we became volunteers.
Arlo has always been intelligent, he picked up obedience training easily and was soon getting his Bronze and Silver awards with the Kennel Club Good Citizen Scheme. Labradors are known for being bright but dippy and Arlo fits into this category perfectly. You could always see the excitement Arlo got from interacting with people, especially children and I was desperate to nurture his instinct and keep his mind sharp.
Spring came and I was scrolling through Instagram one evening when I noticed a post about a PAT dog. I had no idea what ‘PAT’ meant and being an inquisitive soul, I went to the 90s kids best friend, Google. I read up on the website about volunteering, what it involved and the type of placements. It was just what I had been after; I could encourage Arlo to interact with humans but also give back to those in my area.
Then doubt hit me. Although Arlo is amazing, he was only One year old and could still have the odd day where he decided to jump up at a visitor or ignore me. After a few days of mulling it over, we signed up, there was no harm in seeing what could happen. It was then I noticed the Read2Dogs scheme. Arlo adores children and he naturally knows how to behave around them. He is around children of varying ages regularly due to our big families and he instinctively knows to be calm, gentle and placid around those smaller than him.
I have always been an avid reader, especially as a child, I would love getting lost in the mischief of Mildred Hubble (The Worst Witch), the adventures of the Famous Five or the antics of the animals being treated at the Animal Ark clinic. It’s no secret that children are lost in the worlds of television and Xbox games and as time goes on, I’ve noticed more and more of the children I know not wanting a bedtime story but 5 minutes on the iPad. Reading was such a big part of my childhood and I wanted to encourage and inspire others to pick up books.
How we became volunteers
The day of our review arrived and I was nervous. I dreaded Arlo jumping up a little old lady or suddenly forgetting all his training. I met the two ladies testing us at a local garden centre. I had suggested the location as there was a café, lots of noise, people and best of all very young children. The ladies we met were great and had a very relaxed vibe which instantly chilled us both out. Arlo wowed them with his food manners and how placid he was when a toddler approached out of nowhere to pet him. I’d already shared that I had thought long and hard and felt Arlo would be best suited to a Read2Dogs placement. I hoped one day he could visit hospitals and retirement homes but I felt his current maturity and experience with youngsters was better suited to this scheme. They agreed and I was thrilled. The test itself went smoothly, the examiners just wanted to know that your dog is safe, calm and well behaved. They expect a calm greeting with 4 paws on the ground and no negative reactions to fuss, attention and loud noises.
The onus is very much on the volunteer throughout the process. We sent off our paperwork and were soon enough approved. Now for the hard part and (surprisingly) the most challenging of our experience, finding our placement.
I was keen to start at a Primary School as I felt Arlo would flourish in the environment and I too would feel more confident talking about fairies, pirates and dinosaurs than Cardi B (still no idea who she is) and what the older children of today discuss. I searched the list of local schools that had signed up to the programme and contacted one that was a mile from our door. They replied immediately and were interested, I got ahead of myself here and ordered myself a PAT polo shirt and Arlo a bandana. The uniform isn’t compulsory but I felt I wanted to look professional visiting schools and it would highlight to the children and parents who I was and why I was there (you can never be too safe).
I regularly contacted the school to set up our initial meeting and to run though my ideas to no avail, then came the summer holidays and I had no luck on their return. I decided to widen my search and contact more schools, including those not registered with Pets As Therapy. I struggled to hear back and in all honestly I was surprised and disappointed that I only got one response. One response was all I needed though and better still, it was my own Primary School.
Within days I had met the Literacy Lead and we had discussed what the programme was and how sessions would work. I had to send their details to Pets As Therapy so they could be added to the system and have all the documentation sent to them. It was easier than I thought.
A few weeks later I came into the school with Arlo to lead an assembly. This was important to me as I wanted the children to be excited about the prospect of reading to Arlo but also lay the foundation for some simple rules. I called these rules the ‘Big Five’ and added each of them to part of a paw print. The children range from nursery to Year Six so I needed my talk to appeal to all age groups. I kept my presentation simple and made it interactive. I started with a quiz on Arlo so they could learn about his breed, age and likes. I then explained that Arlo loved stories and I was desperate for him to hear more but I didn’t have the time. The kids loved it and were so excited to help. I knew I had made the right decision as Arlo was great in the noisy environment and couldn’t get enough of the fuss he received from the children.
Soon enough we were starting our sessions and I have never seen Arlo so desperate to get into a building. I love walking past the playground and having the children call out to him and gasp “it’s Arlo” and “Miss, when can I read to him?”. Arlo has been known to cry at the office front door on the odd occasion when he hasn’t been let in fast enough, he really enjoys his time at the school.
There was one moment a few weeks ago that has stuck with me and made me feel we had made the world of difference. The Year One teacher ran up to me excitedly to show me a photo of her student in the class reading corner. The child was one of Arlo’s friends and he had enjoyed his session so much, that he had ran to the reading corner to pick his book for the next week. The teacher then explained that it was impossible to get the little one to even pick up a book usually so this had been a massive achievement. I went home really feeling like Arlo and I had made a difference that day and it was a wonderful feeling.
I’d be lying if I made out that everything goes swimmingly. The timing of sessions was difficult to get right at first and it became clear we were trying to benefit too many children at once but the school and I worked together to find the best way to suit the children who needed more reading time. It does break my heart though when I walk through the school and a child will shout “ I wish I could read to Arlo” or “I wasn’t chosen”. We also struggled with Teaching Assistants as they need to be present to help children who may be struggling (I’m not a qualified teaching professional myself) but we soon found a lovely student teacher who is more than happy to devote his Friday afternoon to Arlo and now the process runs as smoothly as it could do (it is still a primary school).
I love knowing we have made a difference and have encouraged reluctant readers to pick up a book. There is nothing better than when they run around the corner with a new book that they want to show Arlo. The week the charity sent out our ‘Arlo Bookmarks’ and Pets As Therapy stickers was amazing, they were all so happy to get a present from him with his face on.
How to Register
Arlo and I hope to continue our journey at the school and each term we have a new group of children sent to us. I would encourage any of you with a happy, calm pooch to take a look at the scheme. You too can make a difference!
Have you ever experienced being a PAT dog? Maybe this is something that interests you and Arlo has inspired you to get involved? Share your comments below.