“There is no stronger bond than that between a person and a dog. It is an extremely special, very ancient thing. Despite being a reasonably recent dog owner, the idea of not having a dog has now become unimaginable to me. I absolutely adore dogs, and I plan on having one for the rest of my life!”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Simon Bell, the owner of a dog called Max, a licensed ‘Pets As Therapy’ (PAT) dog. Max is a cross-breed between a miniature poodle and a small retriever. He is an excellent example of the many reasons to have a dog. Humans have been drawn to dogs for years. Apart from being adorable, dogs are shown to help us feel happier and less lonely, and make us more social and active. It is clear to me that Max has that impact not only on Simon but also on the many children he has met.
Could you explain what being a therapy dog involves?
You have to pass a simple exam that tests that you can handle your dog and that he/she is calm enough. Once you have registered your dog and been approved as a handler, you can join ‘Pets As Therapy’. This is a charity that enables you to bring your dog (or other cuddly companion) into establishments such as care homes, hospitals, schools and prisons where they can provide much needed support for the people there. Volunteering for ‘Pets As Therapy’ is a great thing to do, particularly in this country, as we are a nation that is really keen on pets, especially dogs.
Where does Max work as a therapy dog?
Max is a reading dog at a north London primary school. His job is to help children between ages six and eleven who are reluctant readers. Before COVID-19, once a week in the morning, from nine to eleven, I would come into school with Max, and meet a child in the library who would choose a book and read to him while I watched. Max and I would sometimes see seven or eight kids for around fifteen minutes each. None of them thought it was awkward, they all loved it, and Max was always incredibly calm. The school appreciated him so much that we arranged for me to start leaving him there after the reading sessions ended at eleven. Max and I have not been able to work at the school for the last couple of years due to coronavirus. I miss working there and seeing the children develop each week; I think Max does too.
Could you tell me about a particular child you and Max have impacted?
There was a girl who came at the age of six; she was a selective mute (someone who knows how to speak, but is unable to do so in some environments due to social phobia). We knew that this girl talked at home, but she did not speak at school for the whole of her first year there. The school thought spending some time with Max might be helpful for her. As she would not be able to read to him, we devised a system where I read to her whilst she petted Max. We would then go down to the school gym and teach him tricks. We did this for nearly a year, and she never said a word. However, one day, after nine or ten months of seeing her, she started speaking very quietly. It was the first words she had said at school, and it was to Max. Gradually she spoke to him more and more, and within six months, she started speaking to teachers and other pupils. There is no magic in cases like this; it is simply about the comfort and reassurance an animal can provide to a child by being next to them.
Unfortunately, Simon and Max have been unable to help out for the last two years but plan on getting back to it as soon as possible. It is clear to me that they make an immense difference to the children they meet and are remarkably effective at supporting the students they work with. Registering your furry friend with ‘Pets As Therapy’ could significantly impact someone’s life, whether they are in a school, dementia ward or even a prison. For further insight into the extent that dogs can reduce stress, I would encourage you to read this heart-warming story about dogs being taken into a prison.