Kath McQuarrie has been a volunteer with the ACT Companion Dog Club for 25 years. These days, she travels between Canberra aged care facilities and hospitals providing pastoral care with her miniature schnauzers Hope and Rocky.
"When most of us get older, we may not have anyone there to provide touch. No one to give them a hug, or love them. And it's not always appropriate for a pastoral carer to do that, but a dog can," Ms McQuarrie, 76, said.
Looking into the deep brown eyes of Hope, 9, and Rocky, 8, you can't help but feel lighter. Their smart little beards help, obviously. Yet their cuteness isn't the primary reason Ms McQuarrie chose schnauzers.
"They're a bright dog. Very attractive, they don't shed, and they're very clever. They're most loyal, and want to please you and be there with you. They just love you to bits."
From our back-and-forth emailing to our chat, her go-getter nature shone through. And it seems this is a trait that has punctuated her entire life. She worked for more than 30 years as an Australian army officer and has devoted more than 25 years to serving the Canberra community.
It's not just the patients who need the dogs around, but Ms McQuarrie herself.
"I'm single, and you know, you have your moments when you're by yourself. And the dogs just give so much comfort. I call them my comforters. And of course, that's what they do in the hospital."
She volunteers at St Andrews Village weekly and has been providing pastoral care at Calvary Bruce for eight years as a volunteer. She also volunteers at Calvary John James, where Rocky has been the first companion dog to enter. They tell her "he's the most popular staff member".
Last year she completed "a very intensive" course in clinical pastoral education at Canberra Hospital. Her major paper, Paws for therapy, explored the benefits of integrating therapy dogs. She says this course had a rather moving moment.
"I took my dogs to Canberra Hospital and people saw me standing outside, and someone brought a patient out just so she could pat the dogs."
She's since had more visits to Canberra Hospital. Sometimes, there's a sense of urgency involved.
"A few months ago I got a call from Canberra Hospital to see if I could bring Rocky urgently. They had a patient in a very volatile situation and she needed to see a dog. She was in the middle of a difficult pregnancy and came from a remote area way outside of Canberra.
"I went over there and met her with a social worker. After that, I took Rocky over there every week and the three of us developed a great relationship. In that time, her situation improved and she was able to go home.
"The thing that she missed most while being in hospital and feeling in threat, was her dog. And the hospital believed that if I could bring Rocky, her stress would be relieved."
Canberra Hospital is now arranging for her to visit on a regular basis with Rocky, and eventually with Hope. Visits can be demanding for the dog, so having Hope approved will be advantageous.
To visit hospitals, the dogs are also required to satisfactorily complete a medical assessment every three months, which can be costly.
Ms McQuarrie visits a variety of patients, of all ages and conditions, and what they all have in common is that they are "very frail and lonely".
"Quite often the patients are missing their dogs at home. Many say: 'If only I had my dog here, I'd be happy'."
Canberra Hospital has requested her to visit the long-stay ward more often, including to see one woman who has been in there for 15 months.
"You bring a sense of normalcy when you bring the dog," she said. "I don't talk much, I just let patients relax with the dog. It's a humbling thing to see how the dog connects with them. The dog can also be the catalyst for communication between two people who haven't spoken either.
"To have someone come and visit and just bring something normal from the outside can just be a huge help to them."
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.