ON the door of the parents’ room at Hexham Priory School – a special school for pupils with learning difficulties – is a handwritten sign that reads, ‘Benji’s Office – Woof’.
It’s one pupil’s tribute to a very caring dog who, after a lifetime of helping visually impaired people get around safely, is now spreading joy in this special school for youngsters with learning difficulties. Benji, who has reached twelve and a half in human years, but the grand old age of 84 in dog years, first came to her present owner, Paul Barrett as a pup.
“My wife, Barbara, wanted to be a puppy walker for the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and that’s how we first got to know Benji when we were living down in Oxfordshire. He was such a placid, trainable dog,” Paul recalls. At around a year, Benji left the Barretts to go to a specialised training centre and then on to become a fully fledged guide dog. But two years ago, they received a telephone call out of the blue.
“When a guide dog retires they might offer them to the guide dog owner as a pet but very often they’ll contact the puppy walker to see if they want the dog back,” Paul says. “I must admit, it took about ten seconds for us to make our decision – he’s such a good old boy,” he adds, giving Benji an affectionate pat.
Paul, who moved with his wife Barbara, to Hexham nine years ago to be closer to their son, Ian, daughter-in-law Rachel and their two children, had heard about the work of Pets As Therapy (PAT) and decided it might be something that would suit Benji in retirement. Paul, a product manager for a software company, got in touch with the charity to discuss the kind of setting he and Benji might volunteer with.
“Being with kids with special needs especially appealed because my daughter, Emily, who passed away some years ago, was very severely handicapped,” Paul says. “Also Benji is so docile and his temperament is just ideal. Knowing what a placid dog Benji is, we thought it would be a nice retirement present for him,” Paul adds. “But we only do one visit a week because he is quite elderly.”
The two of them have quickly become a popular part of school life since they began going into the school last January. “He is very calming and the children enjoy the repetitive actions of stroking and brushing him,” Paul says.
“They absolutely adore walking him as well. One lad, Joe, is one of Benji’s biggest fans. We recently had a fire alarm go off and Joe had the lead at the time and he thought it was wonderful because he got to walk him out into the playground to wait for the firemen and then walk him back again.”
Paul shows us the tandem lead he has for Benji that enables the pupils to feel they’re in charge, even though Paul still maintains control of the reins.
Back in Benji’s ‘office’, another pupil, Henry, strokes the dog’s nose while the labrador/retriever cross sits patiently, never flinching. Henry has a terrier called Pippin at home so he’s used to dogs, but other children have been less confident and having Benji around has helped them overcome their trepidation around animals.
Head teacher, Michael Thompson, says: “From his first visit he’s had a major impact on the pupils. I think it helps the children’s confidence. It helps their empathy with another living creature and while some are genuine animal lovers, others may have some anxiety, but his quiet and calm nature has helped them overcome that.”
Despite Benji’s background as a guide dog, he was still required to go through the PAT assessment procedure to judge his health, temperament, and suitability. Most assessments are carried out in Gateshead by Anne Adamthwaite, of Rowlands Gill, County Durham who is the voluntary co-ordinator and dog assessor for the charity in Tynedale.
“When we first go to see them they must not back off as you approach them and they must never jump up,” Anne says. “We watch them being groomed, we handle them, we hold their ears, paws and tail and we talk to the owners at length. We sit and have a fairly long conversation while the dog remains calm – the dog must not be running around barking.
“People don’t need any formal training. Some will say, ‘how do I train my dog to be a PAT dog’? But it isn’t about that. It’s the temperament of the dog we look at. We do find show dogs make good PAT dogs as they are used to being handled and working dogs too. But we have got everything from chihuahuas to Irish wolfhounds and retired greyhounds also make lovely PAT dogs.”
Dot Taylor is another of Anne’s recruits. She’s a Shih tzu fan and two of her five dogs are qualified PAT animals. Seve, named after the late golf supremo, Ballesteros “because he’s dark and handsome.” Dot explains, has been a regular at Burn Brae Lodge care home at Prospect Hill outside of Corbridge for the last two years.
“As soon as I get his yellow PAT jacket out, he goes bonkers because he knows he’s coming here. We nearly always coincide with tea trolley time and people love to give him titbits.”
Dot bought Seve as a show dog, but he turned out to be too small to compete. When she took voluntary redundancy from her job as a coroner’s officer in Hexham three years ago, she decided to volunteer with PAT.
“It gives Seve a job too and his size doesn’t matter as he’s just right for sitting on people’s knees because he’s not too heavy. As soon as I get his yellow PAT jacket out, he goes bonkers because he knows he’s coming here. We nearly always coincide with tea trolley time and people love to give him titbits.”
Sheila Hall (85) is one of those who enjoys stroking and feeding Seve. “It’s fantastic having him here,” she says. “Sometimes he’ll be lying down, he’ll hear the tea trolley and as soon as it comes in, he gets up like a shot because he knows everyone gives him biscuits.”
Manager of Burn Brae, Paul Ross, says Seve has filled a gap in the day-to-day life of the home. “We did use to have our own Border Collie and a resident at the same time had their own pet here so we were used to having dogs in the building. Then Ben the collie died and then the lady died and her family wanted the dog so it left a bit of a void.”
Seve brings with him all the happy associations for the residents of home comforts. The companionship of an undemanding animal, that gives unconditional love, can be one of the most missed aspects of people’s lives once they go into residential care or if they are in hospital.
For her part, Dot loves to see the residents’ faces light up when she takes three-year-old Seve in. “It’s very rewarding,” she says. “I have had dogs all my life and bred and shown rottweilers, Cavalier King Charles and a great dane.
“But shih tzus are fantastic little dogs. Issie, my first shih tzu, who is five, is the mum of the other three -–Tilly, two, Maiya, one, and Louis, two, and I also have a yellow labrador called Shay, eight. Luckily my partner, Ritchie Kendrick, doesn’t mind dog walking!”
Seve is not related to the others and though he’s not a show dog, Louis is making up for it. At this year’s Northumberland County Show, Louis won best shih tzu in show, beating his sister, Tilly to the title and Tilly was also a class winner.
Julie Sheldon’s soft coated Irish wheaten terrier, Padraig, is like a giant teddy bear and his cuddlesome curls and gentle nature make him an excellent PAT dog. And it’s not just the members of the Florence Hope Club in Corbridge who’ve been admiring him.
This faithful friend has a rosette to prove just how popular he is. Two years ago Padraig (pronounced ‘Paw-rik’, though he happily answers to ‘Porridge’) carried off the prize for ‘the dog that everyone would like to take home’.
The Florence Hope Club met at Corbridge Village Hall until the end of August, providing day care for people with dementia and it was run by registered psychologist, Karen Barnett and Polly Sampson. As well as arts, crafts, games and singing activities, Julie and Padraig were regular visitors every Thursday.
Speaking before the club closed, Karen said “We just all love Padraig. He’s quite therapeutic and so calm to be around.” He can also spark off reminiscence amongst the group. “Julie is always telling us bits and pieces about him and we just get on talking about dogs. One of our members has had animals all her life, but doesn’t get to see dogs any more. So it’s lovely for her to be able to share Padraig.”
Polly added: “He’s usually more on his feet than sitting down. He just stands and lets people have a stroke of him. He likes being the centre of attention.”
Julie has had six wheaten terriers, including three at the same time, although at the moment there is just seven-year-old Padraig and Laika, three.
Julie, who has a son and daughter and a grandchild, lost her husband, David last year and she says being a PAT dog owner has helped her through some low times. “It’s a new dimension and helps me forget about my own problems,” she says.
As well as visiting people with dementia, Padraig and Julie have recently started volunteering at a prison for young offenders in Medomsley once a week. “We went into the girls’ block and everyone loved him. They got him up on the settee and braided his hair, I couldn’t believe it!,” she laughs.
Her other dog, Laika has a completely different disposition. “She’ll never be a PAT dog,” Julie smiles as Laika bounds towards us. “I wouldn’t even attempt to do it. She would have your finger ends off. She’s very different.”
Anne Armathwaite agrees it’s not every dog that is suited to therapeutic work. “A good PAT dog basically has to be bomb proof,” she says. “It has to be calm, gentle and not mind being handled in any sort of way.”
Anne herself has kept long coated German Shepherds for more than 30 years and two have been PAT dogs. “My mother went into a residential home and I started to take my dog, Fern, in to see her. There was a lady there who was quite aggressive with the carers, but when Fern went in she just changed and became a totally different person.”
Eighteen years ago Anne applied for Fern to be a PAT dog and they visited that home until her mother died. “After my mother passed away, I couldn’t face going there any more, so I went to another home in Consett. And when Fern died, my other PAT dog, Skye, also a German Shepherd came with me.
“When you’ve got beautiful dogs, lovely dogs, you want to share them with other people. Volunteers always ring me after their first visits and say, ‘You wouldn’t believe what it was like – I came back with such a good feeling’. And it’s absolutely true. It’s a great feeling, because you’ve done something people appreciate.” * To find out more about Pets As Therapy, visit www.petsastherapy.org