Pets as Therapy

Jess Bryan talks to Velma Violet Harris about her work.

What inspired you to start Velma's Pets as Therapy?

A chronic, painful illness had me in bed for over 2 years and Honey was my constant companion. If not for her, I believe I wouldn't be here today. She lifted my spirits and made me feel better in ways that no medication could! As I began to feel a little better, I felt sorry for all those people in residential care and hospitals having to cope with their challenges without a 'Honey' to raise their spirits. So, I started visiting my local nursing home and was amazed at the benefits and joy it brought to people.

What are some of the ways that people benefit from being visited by volunteers and their four legged friends?

The list is endless but the most obvious and clinically known are: pet therapy brings joy and happiness; physical, mental, emotional and spiritual stimulation; lowers blood pressure; reduces pain; stimulates the brain and memory and offers the chance of a kiss and cuddles to some who may not have received such in a long while.

Have there been any memorable moments in particular that you can share with us?

On being introduced to a friendly, well-mannered and trained pet:

  • An autistic toddler with multiple challenges reached out for the pet. This was the first time the 2 year old ever reached out for something unaided. His parents were amazed!
  • A depressed, elderly gentleman got out of bed for the first time in weeks to greet the dog and give the dog a cuddle. No amount of previous convincing from staff would get him to leave his bed.
  • An elderly lady smiled for the first time that any staff members had seen.
  • A lady with severe dementia who could no longer recognise her own family members, could remember the name of the therapy dog that visited once per fortnight.

What would you like to achieve in the years ahead?

We would love to train more people as volunteers and more health professionals in the safe and beneficial procedures of our training course; to be able to provide this highly beneficial service to more challenged adults and children through-out Australia.

Has there been a re-occurring or driving question throughout the process of establishing VPAT?

Yes! Why is it taking the health industry and the government so long to realise the enormous benefits of pets as therapy and when will there be more funding available?

What kinds of difficulties have you encountered along the way that you didn't expect or didn't feel prepared for?

I didn't expect that I could work so tirelessly at something for 8 years without being paid a wage. Therefore, the only experiences I could call 'difficulties' would be to me personally due to lack of finances. I was prepared for the doubts and the hard work required to start, maintain and manage a professional, safe and beneficial, pets as therapy program.

How has your work with VPAT made a difference to your life?

I've found I have a deep empathy for challenged adults and children and pets, especially dogs. I absolutely adore the qualities in dogs and I feel that spiritually, humans can learn a lot from them. It has also made me realise that worthwhile work offers far more personal satisfaction than any materialistic gain.

What advice would you give to people who are interested in becoming a volunteer?

Pets As Therapy is highly skilled volunteering and takes a considerable amount of training. I would advise prospective volunteers to visit our web site and ask for a 'prospective volunteer package' from us, to read about the specific training required. Not to worry if their pet is untrained as the course teaches all required obedience training but it is essential that their pet really enjoys meeting strangers as the pet's happiness is our first priority. Also to say that if they enjoy bringing joy to others, then they will love this type of volunteering.


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