Anyone else remember Pet Power? For those of you who missed out on a childhood, it was a show presented by Anthea Turner that documented the incredible stories of pets who had defied all odds to save their owners' lives. Elderly people were saved from fires, children were rescued from drowning, it was awesome.
Day to day though, we don’t really think about what animals are capable of. They're there for a cuddle, they’re up for going for a walk. But really, that’s just a small part of their full potential.
Take the dogs of Pets As Therapy for example. The organisation, founded in 1983 by Lesley Scott-Ordish, sends dogs into hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, care homes and special needs schools. They tackle loneliness and can help ease the suffering of people with mental and physical health conditions. They even help children learn to read.
Before they can be deployed into any of these places, the dogs have to pass a rigorous assessment process. Julie Lovatt, who has volunteered with the organisation for over 17 years, carries out these assessments in Northampton. When she first heard about Pets As Therapy, she immediately enquired to find out how she could help with her two dogs, Bean and Crumble. “At one time not many people knew about it,” recalls Julie. “Then suddenly people could see the benefits of the animals going into hospitals and residential care and special needs schools.”
It’s a miracle really, what with the red tape and stringent health and safety laws we have in this country, that animals are allowed anywhere near a school, let alone a hospital. But the evidence of how dogs are able to help human suffering is impossible to ignore.
One report by Harvard Medical School found that on top of the "calming effect" dogs can have on blood pressure levels, there is even evidence that owning a dog is associated with lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
I picked the dog up and put him on the bed. The man suddenly burst into tears and started talking. All the doctors and nurses saw what happened and they started crying too.
And then there are the side-effects that are harder to measure. As anyone who’s ever spent a hungover Saturday furiously googling ‘Borrow My Doggy’ will be aware, canine companions can bring huge amounts of comfort. Any dog owner will be quick to tell you about the psychological benefits of interacting with a dog and caring for it. Or as the report by Harvard Medical School put it: “The opportunity it provides to be more mindful – to purposely focus your attention on the present moment.”
Julie has no shortage of stories about the healing powers of her own Pets As Therapy dogs (the latest of which is an adorable dachshund called Poppy). “Many moons ago when I was visiting the stroke unit, a doctor said, ‘Can you go to that gentleman over there?’” Julie remembers. “He’d been in for three weeks and hadn’t spoken a word.
“I went over to him and I asked if he’d like to see Bean and Crumble. I picked one of them up, and put them on the bed. The man suddenly burst into tears and started talking. All the doctors and nurses saw what happened and they started crying too.”
Other forward-thinking initiatives – such as Read2Dog – have seen dogs being used in schools as well as hospitals, where they have a similar effect on shy children or those with literacy problems. A nervous child in a classroom will suddenly find the confidence to read when a dog is placed on their lap. “They work for everybody,” says Julie. “Children and elderly people can be fragile. Children lose their inhibitions when they’re sitting there with a little friendly dog.”
Feeling fragile is something we can all relate to, and there’s barely an environment that wouldn’t be improved from having animals in it. Animals relax us. They diffuse situations. Meeting your partner’s parents for the first time, for example – that’s a situation drastically improved by the presence of a dog or two. Not least because it gives you something to look at other than the watchful eyes of your potential mother-in-law.
The same rules apply at work. Another American study found that people who were in the proximity of dogs were less stressed as the day went on than those who weren’t. The researchers found that access to dogs boosted morale and reduced stress levels in the office.
The best thing about the dog is that he doesn't know I have a mental illness
Anne Clilverd is the Chair and a volunteer for P.A.T and she’s worked with the organisation for six years. She remembers a time before her work with P.A.T. when her dog Cesc helped a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and Asperger's syndrome, and she realised what her dog could do for other people.
“‘The best thing about Cesc is he doesn't know I have a mental illness' – this was the moving remark made by a client I worked with in a London community mental health team,” remembers Anne. “We had worked together for many years and he lived a very isolated and lonely life with very few connections to people apart from those who were in his care team.
“I was struck by how profoundly our work changed after we had a couple of walks with my dog Cesc," she continues. “He was intrigued by the dogs, turning and checking we were all together as a pack, and this led to really interesting stories about a sense of belonging and how excluded and on the margin he felt. It opened up possibilities for new futures.”
Then there’s the miracle that are assistant dogs. It’s a different role for the animal, but one that can change people’s lives in equal measure.
Susi Rogers-Hartley was left paralysed after a Navy accident 20 years ago, but found that humans couldn’t provide her with the support she needed. “I’ve never really had any carers because the NHS and the local authorities kept letting me down,” explains Susi, who you may remember as the amazing showjumper who starred in that Lloyds TV advert in 2015.
“When I was injured I was housebound and I couldn’t go anywhere," Susi continues. "Then I got my first assistant dog and got back into horses. Then I got back into competing. Now I also have cats that help me sleep at night – I can’t sleep unless there’s a cat on the bed!”
Insomnia, paralyses, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, learning disabilities, Asperger's… Oh, the magical power of pets.
P.A.T. dogs come in all shapes and sizes and volunteers are welcomed at daily, weekly, monthly and any-time visits. 20,000 primary junior schools also need P.A.T. dogs for the Read2dog scheme. For more information on Pets As Therapy and to find out how to volunteer, visit their website.