Therapy dogs are in hot demand. We could recite the evidence gathered through assorted international studies, but Queenslander Sally Purbrick-Illek knows their value first hand.
This story is really about therapy dog Champ, the border collie who brings joy to all who meet him but particularly to young children in schools and older Australians in aged care. Sally has seen Champ light up faces everywhere when he visits and sometimes the older folk even invite him to jump into their laps.
While Champ takes lead billing in this article, his owner, Sally, is a story in herself and that needs telling, too.
She is a serial volunteer. Can’t help herself. She’s been volunteering since high school.
Sally grew up on the west coast of the United States before moving to Queensland in 2004 with her husband, Gunther. Her father was a nuclear physicist and her mother, who was born inVienna, was a sociologist. Gunther was an electrical engineer before retiring.
Sally has degrees in biology, science education and school administration and has worked in the US, Norway, Malaysia, Germany as well as Australia as a teacher, school principal and university lecturer. She speaks German and a smattering of Malay and Spanish.
She makes plenty of time to help out at the Animal Welfare League, Blue Care and with the Australian Veterinary Association. A keen environmentalist, she is also a wildlife rescuer and rehabilitator with WildcareAustralia.
But that’s not all. Another of her great loves are her border collies, Pepper and Champ.
She explains that Champ is a therapy dog at Woodlands Lodge in Arundel on the Gold Coast. “Champ and I go around the common areas and visit the residents in their rooms when invited to do so. Many of these people have been dog owners in the past, and talking about dogs is a great way to involve them in conversation. There are so many benefits for older people.”
“Champ was bred for his calm, even temperament, and even residents who don’t speak can’t resist stroking his soft, luxuriant coat.”
We asked Sally how the partnership started.
“I was training in sheep herding with Pepper and was looking for a second dog when Champ was offered to me by my herding trainer who breeds working border collies,” she says.
“Shortly after adopting Champ, I suffered from a recurrence of breast cancer and had several major surgeries. I’ve come good thanks to my loving dogs, supportive husband and wonderful Aussie friends. I’m hoping to be granted funding for a short film documenting the benefits to seniors who are involved in dog sports. The oldest woman I have interviewed to date is 83 years young!”
Sally says there has been a big uptake in dog sports, with clubs offering classes and competition venues and an increasing numbers of retiree dog-owners participating.
“In addition to the mind/body appeal, dog sports provide participants with opportunities to bond not only with their canine companions, but also with a larger community,” says Sally. “Regardless of your age or fitness level, there’s a good chance you will find a sport just right for you and your canine companion.”
Not to be pushed out of the limelight, Champ (with a little help from Sally) describes his ‘work’.
It’s a dog’s life!
My name is Champ and I’m a working border collie. I was born on a small hobby farm and lived there until I was sold to another human on a property with stock. I tried to please the humans, but I had a lot of pain in one hip which caused me to run with a ‘bunny hop’. I was stoic and did not complain, but I when I was four years old, I was returned to my original home.
I was happy to see my mother and some of my other siblings. I did my best to be useful around the place, and sometimes I helped move sheep between paddocks, although my hip still caused me a lot of pain.
About a year later, Sally, a human with a rescue border collie named Pepper came to learn about sheep herding. She and her dog didn’t know much about herding, so I was allowed to show her how it was done.
Sally seemed to like me, and one day she took me to her place in the suburbs. My new home didn’t have any sheep, but it had a nice yard and a big pool where I could swim.
She took me to a place called a ‘vets’ and they poked and prodded me and said there was a problem with my hip (duh!). I was diagnosed with ‘hip dysplasia’ and had to do all sorts of exercises (I liked swimming the best!). I also got a new diet with lots of raw meat, vegetables, eggs and other yummy food.
Now I am six years old and my hip doesn’t hurt so much any more. Almost every week I get to herd sheep and/or ducks for fun. Sometimes my stepsister Pepper tags along, but she is better at other dog sports and has competed and/or trains in lure coursing, bikejor, disc dogs, obedience, tracking, scent recognition and dancing with dogs. I’m a good teacher, but Sally can be a slow learner so I have to be very calm and patient with her.
I grew up with nine human children, so when Sally took me to a place called a school I was so happy. I get to lie around on soft cushions while the children read to me. Sally takes me to another place where there are older humans. They are very pleased to see me and I love it when they pat me and tell me that I’m a good boy.
Sally also takes us to events called ‘sheep and duck trials’ or we just travel around the country and have new adventures. I’ve also been learning how to find hidden food and something called ‘birch’ in a sport called Nose Work.
I think I have it pretty good now. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? I’m talking about the human here!
Are you a believer in the benefits of pet ownership? Have you seen the joy that a dog or cat can inject into an aged-care facility?