It took a few moments but Sally seemed happy to wait. Slowly, and with great concentration, George put his hand in the bowl and took out a tiny biscuit. Then, holding it tightly between his thumb and forefinger, he guided it to her mouth and then watched in delight as she took it gently from his hand.
Sally is a Pets as Therapy dog who regularly visits George as he recovers from a stroke in hospital. George loves her. For weeks the physiotherapists struggled to persuade him to do any exercises. He couldn’t see the point. His stroke had not only left him with a profoundly weak left arm and leg, but also a deep sense of failure. During those dark days, he found it almost impossible to imagine any sort of future. Would he be able to work again? Would he be able to pay the rent? What would his children think of a Dad who couldn’t feed or wash himself without assistance? What about sex? Would his wife still find him attractive enough? Were those wonderful walks in the local park a thing of the past? Was it all hopeless?
George’s family had been devastated by his stroke and was initially sympathetic. But, as the weeks passed, they all became frustrated as George became more depressed, and stubbornly refused to take an active part in any treatment. That was until Sally arrived.
People are surprised when they hear that we bring specially trained dogs, including guide dogs, onto hospital wards to lift the spirits of patients and visitors. Some raise concerns about infection risks and general hygiene issues. But a dog that is well looked after doesn’t create those problems. The dogs we bring into hospitals have all been vetted to ensure they are safe in all ways. And we work under strict guidelines. But the truth is we are highly unlikely to catch any diseases from clean dogs.
The same isn’t true of many human visitors. There is no process that excludes a relative or friend visiting with a cold, head lice, chest infection or diarrhea. It will be discouraged but countless visitors bring their bugs in every day as well as their dirty coats and shoes.
The surprise created by an unexpected dog visit is also part of the magic. We see dogs every day in our homes, parks and on the streets, but not on hospital wards. Their sudden appearance creates energy and excitement just as a duck from a local pond might create a stir if they were suddenly spotted waddlig along the aisle of the frozen food section of our local supermarket.
Unlike humans, dogs don’t judge or answer back. Their unconditional love helps to make those in the greatest need feel valued. An earnest wife, who takes her caring role very seriously, may constantly nag her husband to do his exercises, but a dog just wants to be stroked. And, in doing so, the patient is moving his arm in just the way the physiotherapy prescribed. When George fed Sally a treat, he was using the fine pincer movements that help damaged fingers to recover. When Sally ate the treat, and then gently licked George’s fingers in appreciation, it was the best reward George could have.
Across the country, Guide dogs, Hearing dogs, Dogs for Good, and other similar organisations, transform the lives of thousands of people. They not only become their eyes and ears, enabling them to do so much more in complete safety, they also become their carer and their friend.
These wonderful dogs not only help their owners get up in the morning, they give them a reason to get up. A guide dog needs feeding and walking, so their owners not only feel useful, they also get regular exercise in the open air. The dog helps them to socialize, to make small talk as they walk along streets and in parks. When dog and owner arrive together on a hospital ward, patients are moved to see them work in perfect harmony, especially when owners delight in sharing their stories. In short, it is a highly valuable exercise that helps in so many ways to relieve the pain of one of the greatest modern conditions – loneliness.
Carers who looked after their loved ones save the country billions of pound every year. The stress on their own health is often huge. As much as they love their relative or close friend, the tensions created by the dependency of a loved one can be enormous.
A dog is a very patient carer. As long as they are fed and walked, they make no other demands. And the key to that successful partnership, is their owner's need to care for someone too. We all want to feel useful and looking after a dog goes a long way to fulfilling that need.
But a dog’s life, if they are caring for someone with a disability, does present certain challenges. Currently, across the country, guide dog owners and their supporters are campaigning to make parking on pavements illegal. Guide dogs see the car and guide their owner around it, often leading them straight onto a busy road. Many owners have multiple disabilities. Some have lost limbs or may also be deaf. In the face of an on-coming car, they struggle to get out of the way. Several have died, and many more have been seriously injured, along with their dog.
Guide dogs are also trained to protect their owners. If the dog is attacked by another dog, they know not to retaliate. This makes them highly vulnerable and many of their supporters are now campaigning for a law to make attacking them a serious crime for the owner of the offending dog.
I see all these dogs as outstanding carers and believe they should be valued as such. Charities that support carers should remember them and Government should take their caring role very seriously too.
Last week, as part of a celebration to mark the 75th anniversary of Guide Dogs, an owner who had had both legs amputated below the knee, and had gradually lost his sight following an explosion on a troop ship, told of how he had often sat on the floor, rocking himself and crying at what he saw as the hopelessness of his situation. A husband and father, he couldn’t imagine how he could be anything but a burden to both of them with his multiple disabilities.
And then he got a guide dog who, every day, helped him see, made him exercise, and offered unconditional love in return for food and a walk. And life changed forever.