Pawesome pals: Meet the adorable Pets As Therapy dogs at St George’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

For the last few years, the monotony of the working week at St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has been broken up by visits from a few furry friends.

The South London hospital now has 14 therapy dogs who come in weekly to lift the spirits of staff and patients on wards around the hospital.

Dave Woodruff, a project manager at the trust, started organising the visits in 2019 as a registered volunteer with the charity Pets As Therapy, after hearing about a similar scheme from a friend at King’s College Hospital.

“Two or three years ago there were two of us, and now there’s 14 dogs actively coming into St George’s,” he said. The dogs typically come into the hospital once a week, and a session can last from one to four hours, with the four-hour sessions covered by multiple dogs.

“There are special occasions where people are particularly unwell, or people have asked for it, where we’ll go and do a one-to-one visit for a longer time. There’s been specifically some children going through difficult times, and they’ve asked if a dog can come and sit with them,” he added.

“We take the dogs onto critical care units as well, and so there’s been occasions where patients who are in a coma have put their hand out to stroke a dog, and the nurses believe that helps them connect with the outside world a bit.”

Dave with his dog Rosie, and friends from Pets As Therapy (PAT), on a dog walk

Dave also explained how taking his own sprightly spaniel, Rosie, into St George’s helps improve the experience of individuals who are terminally ill by bringing a bit of excitement to their wards.

“There was a teenager with learning disabilities and leukaemia in a young adults space who Rosie and I used to visit. I think because he was in hospital for so long, he found it so nice to throw the ball and she’d knock things over, and his nurses said to me it was the part of his week that he’d look forward to,” he said.

As well as providing comfort to patients, the visits also allow the dog owners to feel like they are supporting the work of the NHS and its staff, Dave said.

“I think the volunteers really like it when they’re actively involved in patient care. I think some people are doing this because they want to feel like they’re giving something back to healthcare.

“For staff morale, particularly after COVID, there’s been a massive uptick in morale back into the hospital. It just decompresses, helps with stress and gives everybody a bit of a chill-out.

“Most staff love us – when you walk past the ward, you feel a bit like a celebrity! People will maybe take a couple of minutes out of their busy day to chill out and play with the dog,” he added.

On tour with Toby

The South West Londoner accompanied one of St George’s longest-serving therapy dogs, Toby the cockapoo, and his owner Jackie Harvey, on a tour of the hospital to see people’s reactions first-hand.

Toby’s first stop was the trauma ward, where Jackie explained how the dogs can help patients recover from serious physical injuries.

She said that she and Toby regularly see a young man in his early 20s, who was admitted in April with a broken neck. The first time they visited him on the trauma ward, the man’s parents said he could not move. But amazingly, when Toby went over to his bedside, the man’s hand reached out to stroke him. Toby still visits him every week.

Next on Toby’s tour was a trip up to the Dalby senior health ward, where patients’ faces lit up in delight.

“Isn’t he beautiful!” exclaimed Carol, a patient, when Toby jumped up onto a chair by her bed.

“I know you!” exclaimed another patient, a man who recognised and remembered Toby from his weekly visits.

“You’re lovely!”: Carol was overjoyed to see Toby in the Dalby senior health ward | Image credit: Georgina Findlay

Jackie said Toby’s visits to the Dalby ward provide a welcome break in senior patients’ weekly routines. “For the seniors in the Dalby, it really breaks up their week. Also for the nursing staff, it gives them something slightly different to focus on. A lot of the nurses will say, ‘I needed that.’ It makes such a difference having a dog in,” she said.

Many of the nurses on the Dalby ward emerged from their offices to greet Toby, who is trained to sit calmly on chairs by patients’ beds for five minutes at a time. Meanwhile, Jackie chats to patients about their day, asking what books they are reading.

Toby and Jackie with staff on the Dalby senior ward at St George’s Hospital | Image credit: Georgina Findlay

“Everybody just smiles at us all the time,” she added. “For us, it’s a very cheerful place to be. Toby’s been coming to St George’s for five years, so a lot of people know him. The amount of people you get going ‘Ah! There’s Toby!’. Nobody knows my name, but they know his!”

One group of staff are familiar with Jackie by name: the hospital’s Bereavement Services team. As Jackie and Toby entered their office on the ground floor, Melanie, one of the counsellors, said with a huge smile: “It’s so nice seeing Toby and you!”

The work that the bereavement counsellors do can be particularly hard, Melanie explained, and Jackie and Toby’s visits always help cheer them up in difficult times.

“We have a good old chat. He cheers me up. We do get sometimes quite stressful days, and it’s a bit of a light relief to have a little visitor – and we enjoy speaking to Jackie as well,” she added.

Melanie, one of the hospital’s bereavement counsellors, said seeing Toby is “a bit of light relief” on stressful days | Image credit: Georgina Findlay

As a Pets As Therapy dog, Toby has previously visited a care home and Linden Lodge School for children with special needs. Pets As Therapy also sends dogs to other hospitals, hospices, schools and prisons.

Toby also has an NHS identification card, as a valued member of the St George’s trust community.

As a respected member of St George’s Trust, Toby has his own NHS staff identification badge | Image credit: Georgina Findlay

Asked whether all hospitals should have visits from therapy dogs, Jackie said: “I think they should. St George’s is very good about it. If we’re going round, someone will stop me and say ‘Oh, could you come up and see so-and-so?’ It’s a combination of voluntary services and Dave, and I think it does make a big difference.”

Gesturing to Toby, Jackie added: “As you see, he loves it. He absolutely loves it.”

Toby, cheerful and in good spirits, brought joy to patients and staff at St George’s Hospital at the end of a ruff week | Image credit: Georgina Findlay

Featured image credit: Dave Woodruff. From top left: Toby and Jackie, Rosie and Dave, Archie and Avni, Frankie and Mel, Dudley and Sarah, Percy and Zoe, Finnbar and Judith, Skye and Rebecca, Milly and Clare, Elvis, Demet and Xavi, Beau, Topsy, Ray, Dudley.

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