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Luca works his animal magic

>Owner: caroline delaye, from co wicklow

>Pets: her three dogs, luca, a great dane, manoukie a jack russell and bentley, a st bernard

>Background: caroline and her three pets work as a visiting team for irish therapy dogs

Caroline's family of three dogs has recently joined a sector of the canine population that's been growing rapidly in recent years: pets that are being used as therapy, visiting people in care centres, hospitals and schools.

People have been using animals as therapy for hundreds of years. One of the redeeming aspects of pre-Victorian mental asylums was the fact that they recognised that the company of animals produced a sense of wellbeing among disturbed psychiatric inmates. Rabbits and birds were often kept in the courtyards of asylums for this reason.

More recently, much research has been carried out that demonstrates the positive effects of visiting pets. The company of animals encourages people to communicate and to interact with the world.

There's something about an animal that makes people feel that they can talk easily to them and pet them. There are physical benefits, too: contact with animals can reduce blood pressure and slow the heart rate. One of the newer schemes involves taking dogs to schools and libraries, where children are encouraged to read aloud to them. The non-judgemental attitude of the animals can act as a useful bridge to help shy children learn to read in front of a group of other young people.

Caroline was introduced to Irish Therapy Dogs at their Pet Expo stand in Dublin last summer. She had with her Luca, her Great Dane, and it seemed to her that he was a potential candidate to be a visiting dog. Everyone was coming up to him, talking to him and petting him, and he remained completely relaxed, enjoying the attention. Caroline was invited to consider getting involved, and she agreed to do so. She started with Luca, but found herself enjoying it so much that she has now introduced her other dogs to the scheme as well.

Irish Therapy Dogs work with vulnerable people, and it's organised on a strict, formal basis as a registered charity. Caroline had to complete application forms, with references, and she had to be vetted officially by the Garda. Once this had been done, she was called in to the Irish Therapy Dogs office for assessment. She had to demonstrate that she had complete control of her dogs. The dogs were then checked by a stranger, who petted them all over, lifting their ears, picking up their feet, and making sure that they were calm and relaxed when this was done.

After further training, Caroline and her dogs were ready for their first therapy visits. She started by taking Luca to a local psychiatric hospital, visiting for an hour every week. Many of the patients had owned dogs before they went into the institution and they clearly missed this part of their lives. People who had almost shut down, just staring at the wall in silence, began to open up again, responding to Luca. They'd talk to him, and even when he'd gone, the staff told Caroline that they'd continue to talk about him.

With her three dogs now trained as therapy dogs, Caroline feels that she has more to offer. Her three dogs are very different from each other, they each have their own personalities and some people will take to one dog, others will prefer one of the others. She now plans to have longer visits, taking each dog in turn to meet patients.