The Pets As Therapy dogs at Furness General Hospital and St Mary’s hospice
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 June 2019
Hundreds of pets take part in a volunary scheme to brighten the day for people in hospitals and hospices. Emily Rothery met one of them.
Otis, a ten-year-old labradoodle, brings a smile to people's faces wherever he goes. He is a Pets As Therapy dog and he's spreading joy on his weekly visits to the children's ward at Furness General Hospital and St Mary's hospice in nearby Ulverston.
John Battersby, Otis's proud owner, became involved with St Mary's purely by chance when he began walking his dog with the husband of the hospice chief executive. Around the same time John's wife came across a page about a hospice dog and realised that Otis, with his calm demeanour, would make a perfect PAT dog.
Pets As Therapy is a national charity founded in 1983. It is unique in that it provides therapeutic visits to hospitals, hospices, nursing and care homes, special needs schools and a variety of other venues by volunteers with their own friendly, temperament tested and vaccinated cats and dogs.
'Because there were no PAT assessors in this area our local vet tested Otis for suitability, checking his temperament and reaction to sudden noises and making sure that he didn't jump up,' says John.
'We went from there, and I qualified as a volunteer at the hospice and our weekly visits began. I was apprehensive at first but it's such a happy and vibrant place and Otis soaks up the attention like a sponge.'
Sarah Simpson, marketing manager for the hospice, adds: 'Otis brings such joy and helps people to open up. He's a real ice-breaker and his gentle presence really lifts spirits. We all love him.
'We are incredibly lucky to have people like John. We have over 300 volunteers, alongside the people who make donations, to keep us going and help us to give that quality of care.'
John laughs as he tells me that Otis is his first dog and ten years ago he wasn't even sure that he wanted a canine companion. 'My kids always wanted a dog and I would put them off saying that I might get one when I retired. As soon as I did retire, they asked when we were getting one. Anyway, it took me about another year and in a weak moment I succumbed. My wife was on to it straight away telling me that what we needed was a labradoodle. I'd never even heard of one, but after a bit of research we chose Otis from a litter of 11'.
John, who is from Ulverston, has worked as a teacher for children with additional needs in residential schools in Lancashire. 'When I trained Otis, I applied the principles that I'd used in teaching. I rewarded the good behaviour and ignored the negative. Thinking that if it works for kids it'll probably work for dogs. In hindsight I know I was so fortunate to have a puppy who was so easy to train.
'Otis has been working as a PAT dog for two years now and recently, after my own daughter had a stay in hospital, we began weekly visits to the children's ward at Furness General where Otis always attracts a lot of attention. At first the children couldn't get a look in as parents, staff and cleaners all flocked in to see him!'
Lorraine Foster, hospital play specialist for the Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust stresses the value of visits from a four-legged friend. 'Otis's visits to our ward are fantastic. He provides cuddles and love for the children, parents and staff. After his visit we all feel brighter and happy. It's wonderful that we have the opportunity to provide this kind of therapy for the children and their families.'
John and Otis have also worked with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services where Otis's gentle presence has helped a girl to overcome a dog phobia. 'After two or three meetings where the girl learned to stroke Otis I was delighted to be shown a photograph of her with a small dog on her knee,' says John.
John and Otis really do go that extra mile to help others as they also make a weekly visit to Greengate Junior School where Otis's friendly, non-judgemental approach is starting to reap benefits. The school's educational needs coordinator Angela Phillips says: 'Otis has been amazing in providing comfort for pupils who have difficulties with their social and emotional health. The benefits of having a PAT dog help our children with decreased motivation and inattention. He helps to heighten their emotional states and enables them to be in a better place to learn.
'The relationship they have with Otis, over time, will hopefully improve their social behaviour and emotional attachment with others.
'Parents report that he is a favourite with their children because they come home and talk with the family about the work that they have done with their special visitor.'
PAT dogs also act as listeners and offer comfort to children who may find reading difficult or stressful. Each week, on average, there are 6,000 children across the country benefitting from this unique experience and the results are outstanding.