Nothing like a bit of love and a good old facelick to bring some happiness into the lives of the sick and elderly...

IT'S only the second time that Penny has been to the Age Concern day centre, but she makes herself at home, greets new friends, settles down for a chat. And then lies down on the floor, fitting herself carefully between elderly feet and the legs of the coffee table.

Penny is a beautiful black Labrador, gentle, affectionate and well trained, and happy to be made a fuss of by the visitors to the day centre.

Mrs Norah Kelly, originally from Witton Park, talks happily as she strokes Penny's head. "She's lovely. I couldn't have a dog as I can't get out but it's lovely to see her and she's so good."

Meanwhile, at the other end of the room, Raven, another black Labrador but only 18 months old and a bit of a show-off, is making herself part of the men's card school.

"Always had dogs at home," says Reginald Parker, delighted to see Raven. "We had five border collies but when I went into hospital there was no one to look after them and they had to be put down. It's nice to see dogs around, a bit of life."

Raven licks his hand approvingly and the three men start chatting happily about dogs they have owned.

Penny and Rowan in their distinctive yellow jackets are PAT pets - Pets as Therapy. They are two of around 5,000 dogs - and 60 cats - nationwide who are taken into hospitals, hospices, care homes and special needs schools, basically just to be stroked and made a fuss of. No wonder they're happy to do it.

The charity started 20 years ago.

"We realised that when people went into long stay homes and had to give up their pets, it didn't just make them sad, it actually made them ill," says Maureen Hennis, of Stanley, a director of Pets as Therapy and one of the first people in the country to have a PAT dog.

"Bringing a dog into a situation like that is like bringing a bit of normal life, helps people feel less cut off. And it's been shown that the actual action of stroking a dog reduces stress and brings down blood pressure."

Staff soon realised the benefits and now PAT dogs are regular visitors to hospital, particularly good for encouraging nervous children down to the operating theatre.

And yes, of course, the hygiene rules are very strict and dogs have to be assessed and checked before they get to work.

Raven's owners are Tom and Terry Bolon who, in between their full-time jobs of computer programmer (Terry) and taxi-driver (Tom) devote most of their spare time to PAT dogs - either visiting with their dogs, fund-raising - "The spare bedroom's just a store room for stock." - manning stalls, giving advice, giving talks or assessing dogs.

Because PAT don't just take any old dogs, they have to be sure that the dogs have the right temperament. Not too timid, not too boisterous.

"Different dogs suit different establishments," says Terry who's had PAT dogs for 12 years. She started out taking "an extremely laid-back Labrador called Emma" into the old Greenbank Hospital. When the Geriatric Unit was relocated to the Memorial Hospital Terry and Emma ended up visiting four wards on three different floors of the hospital.

Penny, whose owner, Jemima is a veterinary nurse, is very quiet and patient, ideal for the constrained spaces of day care centres. "She's so lovely, I just wanted to share her with people," says Jemima.

Raven, one of the Bolans' dogs, on the other hand, loves doing talks and demonstrations with children and just longs to play - though she behaved herself beautifully at a Rotary lunch recently.

Young cub scouts immediately want to roll around on the floor with Raven, says Tom. Brownies, meanwhile, when hearing that Raven goes into hospitals, are always fearsomely concerned with the problem of germs. Must be those hygiene badges.

Of course, not all people like dogs or want to be bothered with them. At the Age Concern centre one old lady is propped up on her chair, ignoring everyone and staring blankly at the wall.

She wants nothing to do with the dogs, or anyone really. And Jemima, Tom and Terry carefully keep the dogs away from her.

But Jill Watson of Age Concern is delighted with the visitors.

"When the dogs come in, tails wagging, it immediately cheers people up. People like the physical contact with the dogs and it also starts reminiscences, stimulates conversation. Especially for people who've had dogs in the past and have had to give them up it's a chance to have a dog again, if only for an hour or so."

As Tom and Terry start to leave, Raven stops alongside the chair of the old lady who's spent all afternoon staring blankly at the wall.

Raven puts her head on her lap and the lady tentatively puts out her hand and strokes her. Raven stays very still, tail wagging gently, as the lady strokes her head, more confidently now.

And for the first time that afternoon, that blank expression has gone, changed into a smile.

"And that, "says Jill, "is why this is such a wonderful scheme."