Pats for patients

A chihuahua-cross is proving a best friend to the terminally ill, as Katherine Powell reports.

A Bayside resident has received an award for bringing smiles to the faces of gravely ill Melburnians, aided by her small pet dog.

Pat Brown, 70, and her Chihuahua-cross, Toby, have amassed 700 hours of voluntary work at Caulfield’s Calvary Health Care Bethlehem where they visit terminally ill patients.

After researching the principles of pet therapy 10 years ago, Brown decided to give back to the community.

Having spent years caring for her dying father, she knew the therapy’s practical benefits very well.

Studies have proved that pet therapy can lower both blood pressure and resting heart rates, which leads to better general health. “Toby brings so much happiness,” says Brown.

Toby visits patients from St Joseph’s and St Luke’s palliative care wards, in particular the patients who suffer motor neurone disease, cancer and Huntington’s disease.

“They have all got a smile on their face, it takes a while to break the ice with some, as they just can’t accept their illnesses.”

When the pair visits Bethlehem, Brown said, Toby is so popular with the patients that very often “I can’t find my little dog anywhere”.

This is not the first award the pair have received: Ms Brown took out third place in Bayside’s Citizen of the Year contest and have received acknowledgment from both the Victorian Government and Country Carers.

Toby has also been recognised with a medal and a letter of appreciation from former Victorian Premier John Brumby for his services at Bethlehem.

The day he received his medal marked the first time the Victorian Parliament had recognised a dog for its work.

The pair also feature in the advertising of a reputable retirement village, making them popular figures in the community.

Ms Brown said she had no plans to stop volunteering at Bethlehem, saying: “The busier you are, the better you are.”

With loneliness and social isolation becoming more common among Australians over 65, Ms Brown has been encouraging others her age to embrace the advantages offered by volunteer service.

“I don’t understand how people my age can sit around drinking coffee when there is so much good they could be doing in the world,” she said.