In short:

The Caring Canine Companions is proving popular with Renmark Nursing Home residents.

There is demand for the program to expand.

What’s next?

Coordinators say they are always looking for more volunteers.

The energy in the room shifts when visitors walk through the doors of a regional SA aged care facility with their tails in the air and ears perked.

The excited voices of residents and staff fill a communal meeting area as volunteers of the Caring Canine Companions program are led into the room by their eager dogs.

Renmark Nursing Home resident Kathleen Magann was excited to learn she could be part of the program when she moved in about a year ago.

Brenton Kerber and Kathleen Magann enjoy visits from dogs such as Blu.(ABC Riverland: Elyse Armanini)

“I was happy. I love dogs, have always had dogs,” she said.

“I feel unhappy here at times because I haven’t got a dog to follow me around.

“I can’t wait [for the visits] … the dog jumps up on the bed. I cuddle them, I just love them.”

Visible changes

Funded by the federal government and under the auspice of the Golden Retriever Club of South Australia, Caring Canine Companions is run as part of the Aged Care Volunteer Visitors Scheme.

Renmark Nursing Home lifestyle assistant Sarah Peckover was the initial organiser to have the program as an option for residents about four years ago.

Tarnia Pongrac and Sarah Peckover say residents light up when the canine companions visit.(ABC Riverland: Elyse Armanini)

“We had to choose residents who were suitable and … pretty much every resident bar a few wanted to be part of the program,” she said.

“It’s a great sense of satisfaction that we are able to, with the help of caring canines, fill that void.”

Ms Peckover said the experience so far had been positive.

“We’ve even got one person who had working dogs and has quite advanced dementia,” she said.

“When he sees the dogs he comes out of himself and he interacts.

“He comes alive, becomes more animated, smiles and becomes a different person.”

Barb Glazbrook looks forward to visits from Sue Laidler and her dogs.(ABC Riverland: Elyse Armanini)

Tarnia Pongrac, a recent addition to the lifestyle team, said unconditional love was constantly shared between the dogs and residents.

“I think it’s the connection that people have with dogs rather than other people,” she said.

“Dogs just seem to have a way of getting into people’s hearts, as we all know.”

Sue Laidler, Margaret Bradley and Kay Richardson visit facilities as a part of the program.(ABC Riverland: Elyse Armanini)

Roaming the region

Dog trainers Sue Laidler and Kay Richardson started visiting aged care facilities in the Riverland 15 years ago at the request of a nursing home staff member.

“It was just so wonderful to see the reaction that people had to the dogs coming in,” Ms Laidler said.

Now the Riverland assessor for Caring Canine Companions, Ms Laidler, and passionate volunteers made their way to Renmark, Berri and two facilities in Barmera multiple times a month, with up to six dogs at a time.

“We’re out every Wednesday. It’s just a permanent date in our calendars,” she said.

Sue Laidler with her kelpies, Sally and Casey.(ABC Riverland: Sophie Landau)

Ms Laidler’s kelpies, Casey and Sally, have grown accustomed to the weekly outings and have developed special bonds with certain residents.

“My two just absolutely go nuts. They know which day it is, it’s unbelievable,” she said.

“My old Sally, she will choose somebody from one of the places we visit, and she will then go and source that person out.

Don John has developed a special connection with Sally the kelpie.(ABC Riverland: Elyse Armanini)

“She’ll either go to their room and if they’re not there, she’ll head down to the dining room and actually look for them.

“Up at Renmark, her favourite is Don.”

Don John’s first dog was a terrier, gifted to him when he was a boy by his grandfather.

“From then on, when one dog disappeared or died … my dad always got me another dog,” he said.

“And then when I got married, my wife made sure that there was always a dog around the place.

“[Sally] is just very nice, frankly, very well-trained and looked after.

“They bring her to me, and then I just take care of her until [Sue] wants her back.”

Not ending any time soon

Ms Peckover said the program was only going to grow at the Renmark Nursing Home.

“We’re getting more dogs and more residents on board,” she said.

“It’s important the handlers are comfortable and happy with themselves and the dogs [but] they love coming here.”

Margaret Honey enjoys having the dogs in her room for cuddling.(ABC Riverland: Elyse Armanini)

Ms Laidler said other organisations in the region were “begging for us to send people” but more volunteers were needed.

“We just haven’t got them,” she said.

“We’re always looking for more people to actually join up and join us on the visits.”

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