Therapy dog, Bilbo helps patients with mental health conditions

Patients at Priory Hospital Woking with stress, anxiety and depression are benefiting from access to a new therapy dog “Bilbo”.  Animals – including dogs and horses – can trigger the release of endorphins, which give a calming effect, boosting the level of serotonin, a chemical linked with happiness and well-being.

Increasing research suggests that levels of oxytocin – the so-called ‘cuddle hormone’ – can increase when stroking animals, helping to reduce stress.

Priory Hospital Director says: “Bilbo has bundles of positivity that’s hard to ignore. The impact he has had on site is tangible”.

At just a year old, a Cockapoo puppy has become a firm fixture, and part of the family, at the Priory Hospital in Woking, helping support patients in all areas of therapy including relationship issues, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and addictions.

While the 35-bed hospital, based in Knaphill, has a long history of animal-assisted therapy (equine-assisted therapy is currently offered as part of its 28-day addiction treatment programme), Bilbo is having a positive impact as the “resident emotional support dog”.

Across the UK, there are around 6,300 Pets as Therapy dogs visiting hospitals, residential nursing homes and special needs schools.

A therapy dog is different from an assistance dog, which will have special training to provide support for someone with a disability, or for someone living with a condition such as epilepsy. A therapy dog needs to be calm and react well to people’s tears, sudden noises and movements – all attributes that the team at Priory say that Bilbo has in abundance.

Addiction Treatment Programme Manager at Priory Woking and Bilbo’s owner, Samantha Hickey, says: “Bilbo is joy personified and the impact he has on both staff and patients is so lovely to see. For patients, Bilbo offers love, comfort and endless cuddles and similarly is a source of comfort and relief for staff who work in a rewarding, but, at times, emotionally difficult, job. Seeing him plodding up and down the halls, tail wagging and tongue out, the happiness for all who lay eyes on him is so rewarding.”

She adds: “Bilbo’s mix of breeds makes him very easy to train and it’s clear to see that he is able to ‘read’ human emotions and react accordingly.

“A Cockapoo’s fur is hypoallergenic which also makes them the perfect pet to come into regular contact with patients and their families. He’s not a large dog so doesn’t intimidate clients – in fact everyone warms to him very quickly.

“Much like another of Priory’s therapy dogs, Lara – who has also attracted lots of positive attention at her resident hospital in Bristol – I suspect Bilbo is probably the most popular member of the therapy services team!”

By directing attention towards another living thing, much anecdotal and academic research has shown that a patient’s focus is drawn away from his or her own difficulties, allowing them to distance themselves from their distress and then begin talking about their own issues – and consider ways forward.

When present in therapy, dogs can work as a great ‘ice breaker’ in both one-to-one and group sessions by making patients feel more at ease, as well as lifting the spirits of patients on ward visits. Petting or stroking a dog can help with high blood pressure and stress levels.

Studies have found that just the presence of a dog can significantly help lower levels of anxiety. A survey by The Dog’s Trust found that 95% of dog owners in Britain believe that interacting with their dog made them happier, with 89% saying they talk to their dog when no one else is around.

Hospital Director Pete Watt agrees; “Bilbo has bundles of personality and positivity that’s hard to ignore. The impact he has had on site is really tangible – I actually get a hard time from both staff and patients when he is on his well-earned annual leave! He can help to calm clients when their anxiety levels are rising, bring comfort and familiarity to clients who are missing their own dogs, and provide a really sympathetic and non-judgemental ear for both staff and clients when out for a walk.”

Whilst Bilbo awaits his final therapy dog accreditation and ‘qualifications’ to be imminently issued, he is already assisting in many areas of therapy including; relationship issues, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and addictions. And, when not in therapy sessions, clients can take Bilbo for walks around the grounds, organised by a healthcare assistant, which is proving particularly important for those who have a dog at home and are missing them. And, at a time when some people might be concerned about embarking on an inpatient programme, Bilbo is also playing a key role in helping to create an environment that is familiar and feels safe.

A current patient at the hospital said: “Bilbo helps me because I miss my dogs and it comforts me to spend time with him. A dog is an important part of life; no matter who you are and how you are feeling, they show you unconditional love. It is especially helpful to have Bilbo here because it takes away from the feeling of being in a hospital and being able to do something as normal as walking a dog is so important. Bilbo doesn’t judge me or label me as mentally unstable, we can just have fun.”

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