OFF TO WORK: Joy Sunich and her canine therapy dog, Bella. Photos Lorraine Wilson

WHEN four-year-old dog Bella gets her neckerchief on, she knows she’s off to work.
Owner, Joy Sunich, who trained her little bichon-papillon cross to become the Eastern Bay’s first Canine Friends Pet Therapy dog two years ago, says the moment she puts the garment on the little dog, Bella is ready to go. “I think she enjoys the visits as much as I do.”

A former nurse and, for the past 16 years, the medical staff administrator at Whakatane Hospital, Joy says her natural affinity with elderly people and her enduring love of animals combined to form the idea of taking her calm and loving little Bella to visit the residents of Eastern Bay rest homes.

Having heard of the existence of Canine Friends Pet Therapy, a national organisation of volunteers who share the company of their dogs with residents in rest homes and patients in hospitals and hospices, Joy rang to offer Bella’s services, only to be shocked to find out the group had no representation in the Eastern Bay at all.

“I spoke with someone in Tauranga who assesses dogs and their owners for the Western Bay branch of Canine Friends Pet Therapy, and she was very keen to come and meet me and to assess Bella,” she says. Not only did Joy and Bella pass the test with flying colours, but soon after, Joy also found herself taking on the role of Eastern Bay liaison officer.

“I was very happy to do it. I think it’s a wonderful service and I really wanted to make it available in our area,” says Joy, who, having recently cut back her hours of work at the hospital, is considering making her voluntary pet therapy work a fulltime role when she retires.

For the past two years, Joy has focused not only on taking Bella out for as many visits as possible but also on building up a team of additional owners and therapy dogs. “And we now have a total of five,” Joy proudly says.

“Zed, a greyhound cross, now makes most of the visits to Golden Pond with his owner Karen Visser, and Ollie, a poodle cross, visits with owner Alix Stiles. We have Anne Kennedy with her Maltese, Lily, and Emma, a wee chihuahua who visits with owner Sharon Hunt.”

An ardent believer of the therapeutic value of dogs, Joy says she is committed to extending the services the organisation can offer in the Eastern Bay. Volunteers currently visit all rest homes in Whakatane, Ohope and Opotiki, and the hospice. She hopes to not only extend the frequency of visits made, but also to extend the range of places visited.

“I’d love to look at making visits to people who are isolated in their own homes,” Joy says.

“I think the visits are hugely beneficial for elderly people. It’s terribly hard, for instance, for those who’ve had to part with their pets at that stage in life so that they can go into a rest home or because they’re no longer able to take care of them.”

But Joys says the benefits of pet therapy go further. “Taking the dogs to visit makes people smile. It’s like taking in a bit of love, a bit of fun. People love to stroke and cuddle them and it’s such a pleasure to see.”

Joy says she’d like to include other animals, too. “I’d love to have horses, llamas, the lot, but at this stage its dogs, and in order to expand what we can offer, we need more of them.” And on that basis, she says the search for more dogs is on.

“There’s no set criteria for size or breed. The important thing is that to be considered for the role, any dog has to be very calm. Not boisterous at all. They can’t be a dog that tends to jump up, for example. And obviously it wouldn’t be a good idea to have a dog that looks intimidating, no matter how gentle its nature is.”

She says dogs go through an assessment process and also need to be vet checked and well groomed. Prospective pet therapy dog owners are welcome to phone Joy for further information on 027 3413144, and applications can be made directly through the website www.caninefriends.org.nz.

DOGGY PAL: Golden Pond rest home residents enjoy some one-on-one time with Bella, left Beryl O’Flaherty, Arthur Sherrif and Edith Brooking.