It’s not just dog shows… Wallace the therapy-hound

When one in lying in a hospital bed, attached to various bags and machines by tubes and wires, it can be a dispiriting and frequently lonely time.

But what if, lying there one was suddenly to see the smiling face of a great, hairy hound level with yours?

The joy that therapy dog visits have brought to numerous patients is difficult to comprehend, but from patents dying in the oncology ward who have taken solace in the company of a dog visitor, through people who have just lost a friend or family member have leaned on strong canine shoulders while they have cried for their loss, to the numerous patients have spent a little time distracted from what ails them in the company of a doggy friend, these visits make a difference.

Our therapy dog group is involved in various different kinds of therapy work, from school visits to working with autistic children and children suffering from epilepsy, visits to old age homes and so forth, but it is the hospital visits that are arguably the most challenging for the dogs, but also the most rewarding.

Mankind has an undeniable bond with dogs. This bond has been built over the last twenty thousand or so years, and it seems to be encoded into out very genes. A number of studies have indicated that simply being in the company of a dog can promote the brain to release endorphins, can reduce stress levels and lower high blood pressure as well. It is a proven fact that people who interact with animals during the healing period heal faster than those who do not, and the animal that has the greatest effect is the dog.

Most people simply feel better after interacting with a dog. It brightens their day and makes everything seem a little better, and that is why dog therapy work is accepted and even encouraged by a large number of medical facilities and hospitals around the world.

Of all the therapy dogs I have ever met, Wallace the wolfhound was one of the greatest. Not because he was the best, there were and are a number of smaller dogs who did and do a better job actually interacting with people than he did, but the one of the greatest because of the incredibly positive impact that his mere presence had on patients.

Without previously having met him, little children over whom he towered would run up to him and throw their arms around his neck. Patients in obvious pain and discomfort would visibly relax in his presence, and anxious family members waiting outside I.C.U. would become engrossed in talking to him.

It was not that he ever did very much, he simply stood there, and was still. For Wallace had about him a truly magical quality of stillness. It was contagious. And if you were very, very fortunate, he might give you a little, gentle lick.

Yet for all of that, he made a huge impact. People who only met him once stop us in the street and ask about him. The nursing sisters at the hospital burst into tears on hearing that he had left us, and a year after his last visit, people still tell stories of the gentle giant who visited them.

Therapy dog work is not for the faint of heart. It is heart breaking to watch the suffering of people and know that there is little one can do but offer a few moments of respite. And it is very hard on the dogs. They must permit all manner of strangers to interact with them, often in cramped conditions where there is no retreat, and often by people who have absolutely no idea how to interact with a dog. And they must do this in a calm and outwardly friendly manner.

In order for a dog and handler to become a therapy dog team, there must be several factors in play. First, there must be a passion on the part of the handler to do this kind of work. The dog must have a stable, and have an even, out going personality, and should not be nervous. The dog should also be in good health. And then there is the training.

All the therapy dogs in our group are expected to have achieved a bare minimum of CGC Bronze, and be working towards Silver and then Gold, and all must undergo intensive training and then pass an evaluation by a behaviouralist. And once they are trained, they need to undergo constant, ongoing re-training to ensure that they remain suitable for the task.

On the physical side, the dogs must be healthy and undergo regular veterinary inspection to ensure they remain healthy. They must be treated against internal parasites on a regular basis, and be treated against tick and flea infestation well. They must be groomed and cleaned before all visits, and always appear in good condition.

I may be just a tiny bit biased, but I believe there is no better way for your Irish Wolfhound to interact with the community than for him or her to do therapy work, and there are no better dogs to do therapy work that the Irish Wolfhound.

Sadly, Wallace left us in December 2016, but he had already been retired for some time before than. Dougal, Reilly and Stirling had in the mean time qualified, and all continue the great work that Wallace started.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to see them work their magic.

Philip Santilhano