Canine befrienders: Meet the therapy dogs roaming Yorkshire mental health hospitals

The first pet befriending service of its kind in the NHS, based in Yorkshire, is searching for more owners and dogs to volunteer on the wards of mental health hospitals.

Mindy, 6, is one of ten dogs who have been specially trained to support patients on the wards of Fieldhead Hospital in Wakefield, Kendray Hospital in Barnsley and the Dales Unit in Halifax.

Mindy herself had a tough start in life, and has most of her teeth missing. But after she was rescued from a public shelter in Romania by her now owner Angela Barker, Mindy is now helping in-patients with her owner’s support.

Angela started the befriending service at South West Yorkshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and accompanies Mindy on the wards.

Angela Barker and Mindy

She said: “It’s quite emotional to see.

“The dogs just know who needs them the most and gravitate to those people.”

“Mindy is a mixed breed, around six-years-old and she is particularly suited to the wards of the hospitals she visits. Whereas some dogs are better one-to-one.

“The wards tell us there is a big need and it relaxes the atmosphere on the ward by having the dogs there.”

Mindy's name badge as she is an "equal partner"

The befriending service which launched just before the pandemic in 2020 is back in full operation again. The team are hoping to recruit more dogs and volunteers to meet demand as well as to find dogs to visit the wards in Dewsbury.

Volunteer coordinator for Pastoral Care Angela, said: “As well as ward visits, we are now offering individual visits on the hospital site such as patients wanting to walk around the grounds.”

Angela said people on the wards care for the dogs and buy them treats.

“It brings out people’s kindness and compassion which you wouldn’t expect in this environment which can be quite stressful.

Angela and Mindy

“Dogs are non-judgemental and take people the way they are.”

She said Mindy is used to getting constant affection from everyone at the hospital that she expects it all the time in the outside world.

Angela said: “One of the biggest things is, it’s a way for the people we work with to build relationships because they struggle to engage with other people.

“A lot of it is around the relationships you form with people and dogs fill that gap.”

Angela and fellow dog-loving colleague Geraldine Mcdonald

She said it helps to build trust and empathy.

“You have to understand how the dogs feel. If you talk to them nicely they behave nicely

If you treat them with respect, they respond in the same way,” said Angela.

She added that there’s lots of evidence which suggests that dogs - and indeed any animals - help people to form better relationships.

Like with humans, all the dogs are different.

“One of the big dogs is great for one-to-ones, Miley (who was the first pet befriender) is an all rounder and Mindy works in pastoral care. Bruno the bulldog visits the low secure unit, he’s everyone’s hero, he’s cute though,” said Angela.

The dogs visit most of the wards including the low and medium secure wards at Fieldhead Hospital in Wakefield.

“If it wasn’t for the dogs, we couldn’t run this service, it’s an equal partnership,” said Angela

Could you and your dog volunteer as befrienders?

While Angela and fellow dog-loving colleague Geraldine Mcdonald agree that it’s the “best job,” it is hard to find suitable people and dogs as volunteers.

“A stressed dog is more likely to react.

“What we look for in the dogs is one with a reliable temperament, one that actively seeks being around humans,” said Angela.

Angela, who started out as a volunteer with her puppy for a charity six years ago, said a really trusting relationship between dog and owner is essential.

“The dog needs to be well trained and reliable.

“We work with a behaviourist who assesses the dogs and hangs in the background of our service who is happy to be an advocate for dogs,” said Angela who owns Miley and Mindy but only one dog is allowed on the unit at any one time.

She said that they are desperate for volunteers but they do need to make sure they get it right as some clinical areas and some wards are stressful and difficult areas.

If you’re interested in volunteering, email: [email protected]