Can Automated Therapy Pets help with restricted visits during COVID-19?

We are in unprecedented times because of a virus that is making in-roads into our population, which has been found to be more of a risk to our older, and vulnerable members of our society. Most of these individuals have been in strict isolation for months, with physical visits by friends and loved ones suspended. What could we do as a pet therapy organisation to help, considering we cannot visit with our therapy dog teams?

Back in March 2020 as lockdown hit we were unable to visit, we were static. What would be an alternative? We offered and provided some remote pet therapy using facetime and skype but what could try and replace the love of a dog visiting? The answer for us was nothing, but what about automated therapy pets that we had seen being used in the US with positive reviews? Could these provide the comfort, companionship and smiles that our therapy dog teams achieved? Could they replace the compassion and impact of actual therapy dog visits? Maybe not, but can they provide comfort to the person receiving one and their families? We felt they could.

Petting therapy dogs can support the mental stimulation of people with memory challenges in recalling memories, which we had seen on many occasions. Therapy dogs can also serve as ice breakers between doctors, medical staff, caregivers and the residents. They can also help people relax during physical therapy exercises and offer gentle motivation. It is said that some people can even develop similar kinds of relationships and benefits from engaging with automated pets like these.

We had some National Lottery money to combat social isolation with therapy dog visits but this was at a standstill. We purchased a dog and two cats initially to produce some marketing material about their worth. We produced this video under the name 'Cariad Buddy' and gave them Cariad Pet Therapy bandannas.

So we waited until the time was right, and this was in September 2020. With further local lockdowns happening and continual tightening of visits in the care sector, we felt now was the time.

We placed an offer on our Facebook page to find homes for the automated therapy pets (as we now named them). We were pleased and encouraged by the response and we sought to place 12 over the next two weeks, 9 we purchased and 3 being donated by kind supporters of our work.

The feedback was fantastic. We were sent this video by a family member taken in the care home of Barbara just receiving a cat (we were given consent to share this). It shows the impact of these, a very heart warming example of what these automated therapy pets can do.

As you can see the results are wonderful. We have had some lovely feedback from others we have placed, some examples are: 'Doris received the mechanical dog very well. She could be seen talking to it and stroking for it for most of the day on Friday and appeared to be elated by it, smiling almost all day. It was relieving for all team members to see Doris smile as she has been feeling very isolated and lonely. Doris even shared the dog with other residents which was beneficial for them. It would be interesting to see this implemented on a wider scale throughout the home and if Doris’ case is anything to go by, it would go down a treat. Massive thank you to the team at Cariad Pet Therapy CIC from all the team!! Thanks'. Clinical Care Manager 'The home just called and said Dad has received his dog, he burst into tears he was so happy'. 'I spoke with Ben this afternoon on facetime and his has named his dog Lucy, he was very emotional'.

'My mum Doris absolutely loves her dog. Thanks very much she has really missed seeing Fern and her dog Holly (JR) since lockdown. She is nearly 101. Doris has named her new dog Doodle.' 

Encouraged by the feedback from families and care homes we have applied for some funding to purchase and provide more. We have just heard that we have been awarded a small grant from Haverfordwest Town Council for £500 to provide 5 to the Haverfordwest community. We will be taking referrals for those in due course. We are also awaiting the outcome of another funding application.

We have recently seen these used elsewhere with other therapy dog organisations which is good to see, as we can, and have seen, the benefit of them. We will continue to champion these an an alternative to actual therapy dog visits in the current COVID-19 climate, and possibly beyond.

The CEO of the company that developed these said that its pets were “developed with extensive input from older adults” and designed “to look, sound, and feel just like real puppies—without the responsibilities of pet ownership.” He said that “older adults want realism, interactive two-way companionship, and pets.”

He notes that these pets “provide a similar type of warmth and love that real pets offer their owners, all without the mess or time-consuming responsibilities.” They have doglike fur, make realistic puppy sounds, and are somewhat responsive to people near them. “The pup reacts to the sound of its owner’s voice and responds to their touch, much like a real puppy. This two-way interaction helps create a personally rich experience that can bring fun, joy, and friendship to older adults,”

Nothing will replace the warmth of a therapy dog visit, the joy that it brings and the interaction between all parties that has so much benefit. But, if during the pandemic and possibly beyond these automated therapy pets can make a difference to peoples lives - we will continue to promote them.

Rob Thomas

Project Manager

Cariad Pet Therapy CIC

Wales, UK.

Cariad Pet Therapy is a not for profit social enterprise (Community Interest Company) in West and South Wales.

Companies house number: 11656368

12th October 2020.

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