Paws for thought

home secretary has used a guide dog to help him do his job for years. Now
charities are providing dogs to help deaf and disabled people with physical
chores and even as companions, writes Natalie Valios.

man’s best friend help plug the social care gap? Dogs do not discriminate on
the grounds of race, sex or anything else. They work seven days a week without
complaint. They don’t go on about their personal problems, they never breach
confidentiality, and they never ask for a pay rise. They are, in fact, ideal

But while we all know about guide dogs for
the blind, the growing role that dogs play in social care is less familiar.
Evidence suggests that animal-assisted therapy can have beneficial effects for
a range of social services clients. Pets can help with mobility, increase
confidence, lessen anxiety and encourage social interaction.

Now Essex social services department is using
£7,500 of funding from North Essex Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust to
develop a pilot project to use dogs in its work with people with mental health
problems. Part of the project will involve using volunteers and dogs from the
organisation Pets As Therapy to act as befrienders to isolated older people
living in the community.

"We would use PAT dogs for someone who
may want a befriender but doesn’t engage very well with services," says
social worker Tracey Brennan. "For some clients, it’s easier for them to
build a trusting relationship with an animal than a person." If
successful, a weekly visit would become part of their care plan which could
then be funded through direct payments.

Dogs are also giving disabled people an
enhanced quality of life by allowing them to be more independent and less
reliant on human carers, says Lucy Doughty, research and development officer in
the training department for charity Dogs for the Disabled.

There are currently 140 disabled people with
assistance dogs provided by the charity. The dogs can retrieve cordless phones,
open and close doors, collect letters, pick up dropped items, switch lights on
and off, bark to raise the alarm in an emergency, bring in the milk, carry a
shopping basket and empty the washing machine. More impressively, the dogs have
resulted in a reduction in the home care required by their owners in every

Animal welfare is a priority for the charity.
Applicants are assessed according to individual needs, but they must be able to
care for the dog in line with an agreed code. The partnership is continually
monitored throughout the dog’s working life.

"All tasks are based on retrieval and
push and pull work, things that dogs naturally enjoy doing," says Doughty.
"They are like enhanced games that keep them mentally and physically

Hearing Dogs for the Deaf also trains dogs as
working companions. Dogs learn to recognise up to eight sounds including the
alarm bell, doorbell, cooker timer, and phone. The dog leads the owner to the
sound, or in the case of an "emergency sound" like the smoke alarm,
lies down in front of their owner.

While initial training costs are high – it
costs Dogs for the Disabled £11,000 per dog – the end result is that users need
far less human care. So should local authorities be investing in providing
clients with dogs and lessening their home care costs? Brannan knows of one
disabled client whose 42 hours’ home care every week was reduced to just seven
hours once she got an assistance dog.

Nicola Dunn is a firm believer in the value
of non-human home care. Her life has changed dramatically since she acquired
Will, a Dogs for the Disabled golden retriever, 18 months ago.

Dunn has cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair
user. She has local authority home care to help her get up and go to bed, and
before Will arrived she could only leave the house when a carer was there to
help. Now she is free to come and go as she pleases because Will can open the
door by pulling a rope on the door handle. He brings Dunn the phone, picks up
the TV control, carries her shopping, puts clothes into the washing machine,
and is currently learning to post letters.

According to Dunn: "I prefer Will to
home care. Before Will, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to go out and I had
to plan everything I wanted to do around when I had people here. I don’t need
half as many carers now, and when I don’t have carers I’m not on my own
anymore. He has changed my life completely."

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