An­i­mal magic:

An­i­mals can bring huge joy into a per­son’s life, boost­ing well­be­ing, eas­ing stress and bring­ing a wel­come smile to faces of all ages

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: Rachel Buller

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.

uea.su/tomand­toto.co.uk

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

Pic­ture: Mark Bul­limore

BE­LOW:San­dra Dalzell with her rare black barn owl Dusk

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