Animals can bring huge joy into a person’s life, boosting wellbeing, easing stress and bringing a welcome smile to faces of all ages
The pets bringing sparkle into people’s lives
From walking your dog on a bright spring day to listening to the content purring of a cat as you stroke it, interaction with animals has long been accepted as being hugely beneficial to our mental health and wellbeing.
National charity Pets as Therapy is an advocate of using pets as an effective way of bringing joy, comfort and companionship to people who most need it – and you can volunteer with your pet (petsastherapy.org).
But here in Norfolk, there are some very special pets which are helping in some more unusual ways.
Sarah McPherson’s own personal experience led her to set up the social enterprise Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing in 2017.
“I had two mini donkeys and around the same time my mum developed dementia. She loved spending time with the donkeys and I could really see what a positive impact it had on her.”
When her dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Sarah made the difficult decision to move her parents from Leicestershire into residential care in Norfolk.
“I asked if I could take my donkeys in to see them. The staff at the home couldn’t believe how much it transformed my mum’s wellbeing and they asked whether I could take them to see some other residents. When mum died, I just knew I had to do something with the donkeys to help more people as they really do bring joy into people’s lives.”
Quickly, interest in Sarah’s initiative began to grow and now, almost two years on, she has seven in her herd and, with the help of a team of volunteers, has delivered more than 200 visits across Norfolk and Suffolk as well as taking part in many events.
“Their temperaments are perfect and they are very stoic; they weigh up a situation rather than reacting suddenly. We do a lot of socialising and training. They need to be used to being touched by all sorts of different people and we have to get them used to unpredictable movements, to different noises and environments. We can get into a single care home room, even if it is packed with medical equipment, which is so important for people who are bed-bound.”
Sarah’s donkeys have worked with children with complex needs and in many community settings. They have also worked in a secure mental health facility, and she says “the response was so phenomenal that we have been asked to visit once a month for the next six months.” minidonks.org.uk
From bringing a smile of recognition to the faces of dementia patients to engaging with the conservationists of the future, Sandra Dalzell’s owls bring joy to all ages.
“I worked with people with mental health issues and complex needs and sometimes I would take the birds with me and began noticing the positive impact they had,” says Sandra, who has owned owls for 17 years.
“My motto has always been ‘we raise smiles’, and when you see people with the owls, they are absolutely beaming with joy. We do not encourage touching, but we do allow a very up close and personal experience.”
She now has 16 owls, and as well as barn, tawny, snowy and eagle owls, she also has some unusual breeds, including a South American Chaco owl, a Bengal Eagle Owl and a beautiful, rare black barn owl.
“When I visit dementia patients, the response is extraordinary – in particular with the barn owls. It seems to trigger something special in their memory; when they were young, a lot of them would have cycled everywhere often along quiet country lanes, and the barn owls were prevalent. I think when I bring my barn owls in, it takes them back to those happy memories and they begin talking and engaging with the birds, which often amazes the care staff.”
Sandra also visits a number of schools and children’s groups.
“I recently worked with some children who were blind. They might not be able to see, but they can still feel the gentleness of a feather and smell, sense and hear the birds and it is incredibly powerful.
“When I take my owls to meet with children, the response is amazing. It is important as you are introducing youngsters to the wonders of the natural world as they are our next conservationists.” happisburghowls.com
The University of East Anglia has partnered with Norwich based dog walking company Tom and Toto to boost student morale and promote wellbeing.
The scheme, which has received funding from Sport England, enables students to walk dogs with the team at Tom and Toto, with kind agreement from their owners, helping to tackle mental health problems through physical activity.
So far dozens of students have taken part, enjoying the chance to interact with the dogs while getting exercise, meeting others and escaping the pressure of exams.
At Browick Road Primary School in Wymondham, cockerpoo Mollie has a very special role, helping children to fall in love with books and become confident readers.
“I heard more and more about schools having a resident dog and the benefits it had for pupils,” says head teacher Pauline McMullan. “So I decided to bring my dog Mollie in. I had her assessed with Pets as Therapy and she is now an official PAT dog.
“She has a number of roles really but her main job is to sit and listen to our more reluctant readers. Research shows it can work really well for children who aren’t confident with their reading as they don’t feel any pressure to get it right, they know a dog won’t correct them, and her presence is something which is very soothing.”
She said that some pupils come as part of a group and they all read her a story, while others come for a one-to-one session.
“Sometimes younger children just listen to a story read by a teaching assistant and while they are listening they are sitting with Mollie stroking her, which helps them follow a story and hopefully starts to build a connection with how wonderful books can be.
“In terms of results, it is difficult to gauge the impact, but what we do know is those children who previously haven’t enjoyed or been confident reading, or were reluctant to pick up a book, do really enjoy coming to read to her and that is a big step.”
She says she also has parents asking if their child can come for a one-to-one in her office with Mollie as they are so frightened of dogs.
“They can spend time with Mollie, talk to her and stroke her. It is incredibly successful seems to really boost their confidence.”
ABOVE: Year four pupil Imogen reads to Mollie at Browick Road Primary School in Wymondham
BELOW:Sandra Dalzell with her rare black barn owl Dusk