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Therapy dogs help bring smiles when needed most in hospitals, old age and children’s homes

A therapy dog showing some love in an old-age home. Picture: Supplied

A therapy dog showing some love in an old-age home. Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 7, 2023


Pretoria - Spreading smiles for miles – from old-age homes and hospitals, to children’s homes.

This is the task of a bunch of furry four-legged friends who oblige those who need a hug with a wagging tail.

Top Dogs (Touch our Pets) is a non-profit organisation of volunteers who all work with their own pets to spread smiles, hence their motto, “spread smiles for miles”.

The organisation started in August 2008, when four women in Benoni started visiting retirement centres with their dogs. The organisation grew fast and by 2019 there were about 180 handler and dog teams in Gauteng.

Top Dogs (Touch our Pets) is a non-profit organisation of volunteers who all work with their own pets to spread smiles. Reading with a child is all in a day’s work. Picture: Supplied

Just before Covid-19 struck in 2020, dogs were also evaluated and visits started in Cape Town and the Eastern Cape. At that stage the Pretoria branch was doing about 17 regular visits a month.

“Sadly, our numbers dwindled a lot during Covid-19, as we could not evaluate new dogs. People also changed location and work, which did not always allow them to do visits any more,” said Alta Rossouw, a co-ordinator at Top Dogs.

She told the Pretoria News that many dogs also retired at this time.

“We visit frail care and dementia centres, schools for special needs and hospitals – mainly the oncology and children’s wards. Children’s homes and rehabilitation centres are also top on our list.”

Rossouw and her wagging team also help the Teddy Bear Foundation with preparing children before court appearances where they have to testify.

Top Dog members can choose which visits they want to commit to and they have to do at least one visit a month.

But not every mutt gets to go on any visit. Rossouw explained that the dogs are considered in the choice of visits, as they might not like confined spaces. Maybe the smell of a hospital could also be off-putting to them.

“Our dogs are bathed and their teeth brushed before visits and we spray them with a special disinfectant spray before hospital visits. This is not only for the sake of the patients, but also to protect them from the sick patients.”

A dog bringing hope to a patient receiving chemo therapy. Picture: Supplied

During all the above visits, the dogs will either sit next to a patient or resident, allowing them to stroke and talk to the dog. Sometimes, when the dogs are offered a treat, the smaller dogs might sit on the bed. During an outside visit, children will walk with the dogs, throw a ball, or sit on blankets and read to a dog, if the child has a reading problem, Rossouw explained.

“The smiles and joy on these faces when they have a dog with them is extremely rewarding.”

She said on occasions in the past, children who were healthy enough to get out of a wheelchair but were too afraid to do so, were prompted by their new friends.

By allowing them to hold the leash of a dog with the incentive to walk their new friend, many of these children managed to leave their wheelchairs.

“We also help people that struggle to use their hands and to grip something, by putting a brush in their hand and helping them to brush a dog. This would become a task, or a good deed to them, instead of just another exercise they have to do, and they thoroughly enjoy it.”

Rossouw said people who sat in oncology departments with their drips for up to five hours have commented that they forget about cancer and chemo when the dogs come in to say hello.

“We also, at times, do visits to schools to teach the children about bite-avoidance and the proper care of pets. We de-stress university students with a visit before the exams and have been to companies who have had staff problems and stress, mainly due to open-plan settings.”

Rossouw said the feedback was always very positive.

“It is a win-win-win situation. The patients/residents/children are smiling, feel better and are stimulated. The staff de-stress and have a break. The handlers feel they do something very rewarding and the dogs get a lot of cuddles and attention, and sometimes a treat.”

The science behind this is that interaction with a dog reduces the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline and it increases the feel-good hormones oxytocin and dopamine, also called the natural morphine, she explained.

“At the moment we are desperate in need of more dogs and the criteria is a dog who is well-socialised with other dogs and with people, and also having done basic obedience training. We sometimes go up eight floors in a lift with six dogs, so we cannot allow growling and snapping.”

Rossouw said a handler or owner must have a free morning or afternoon to do a visit.

All kinds of breeds, from maltese poodles to Irish wolfhounds, mixed breeds, and pitbulls are welcome to join the team.

The dogs must have an even temperament and enjoy what they are doing. They should never be forced to do visits, she said.

“We do not do one-on-one visits, as we simply do not have the capacity and our public liability insurance does not allow us to work on our own. We must work in a team of at least two dogs and handlers.”

Rossouw said they have a fairly long waiting list of facilities that needed a visit.

She invited anyone who is interested in joining their organisation with their wagging friend, to visit their website: or they can contact the NPO through [email protected].

They are also on Facebook and Instagram.

Pretoria News