Making a ‘pawsitive’ difference to patient care

25/Jun/2021     Mater Group

A softness and warmth that provides comfort, soulful eyes that seem to understand your worries and a wagging tail that brings a smile when you are feeling down—these are the special qualities of Mater’s volunteer pet therapy dogs.

Our pet therapy dogs come in all shapes and sizes, but the biggest is six-year-old Great Pyrenees Mountain Dog, Belle, who has just what it takes to be a pet therapy dog, according to her owner and fellow volunteer, Helen Squibb.

“Belle is a gentle giant. She has a very placid, gentle nature and is not phased by anything or anyone. She seems to bring this same sense of calm to the people she’s around,” Helen said. 

Volunteer Coordinator, Russell Williams explains the calming effect of dogs is why Mater started its Pet Therapy program more than 20 years ago.

“Dogs can have a profound effect on patients, which can be seen in a number of physical and emotional responses from a reduction in blood pressure, stress hormones, pain and anxiety to an improvement in mood,” Russell said.

Helen has noticed patients become more engaged during visits from Belle.

“For example, we regularly visit the stroke unit and have been told many times by clinicians who have witnessed Belle’s visits that it’s the most interactive they have seen some patients during their stay so far.

“We love to see the difference that Belle can make to a patient’s mood. I’ve heard from many clinicians that a five-minute visit can have a profound impact on a patient’s wellbeing for the remainder of the day,” Helen said. 

Helen and Belle take pleasure in being able to provide a distraction and a sense of normality to a patient’s day. 

“We meet patients who are very unwell, but up until recently they were going about their daily lives doing things that we take for granted every day. Suddenly, they experience a potentially life-changing medical event and they’re in hospital and at their most vulnerable.

“So I’ll have a chat with them while they pat Belle. They often have their family with them, and we might have a chat about their own pets, where they have lived and what their lives were like before they became ill. I think having Belle there is a great icebreaker.”

Belle often has special assignments from the Allied Health teams to assist with a patient’s rehabilitation. This can be anything from simply giving them the motivation to get out of bed to making Belle part of their exercises, such as taking her for a walk down the corridor. 

“We helped a young lady who’d had a brain trauma and after surgery she barely had the strength to touch Belle, but after weekly visits for six months, she had improved to the point where she could take Belle for a walk around the hospital ward.”

Helen and her husband had wanted to participate in pet therapy for many years, so when they got Belle as a puppy, they went through dog training to ensure that Belle was not only a well-mannered dog and could follow basic commands, but could also cope with the sights and sounds and activities of a hospital environment. 

“It was a lot of hard work, especially because Pyrenees Mountain Dogs are stubborn by nature! But when we see a patient respond positively, it makes all of the time and effort that went into training Belle as a pet therapy dog worthwhile.

“Belle absolutely loves coming to hospital to see everyone. She loves all of the attention and cuddles she receives from the patients, not to mention the staff!”

To find out more about volunteering at Mater, please phone 3163 8599 or email

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