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Meet your therapist: Last year Billy the terrier was saved by the kindness of strangers. Now he is repaying the debt by bringing joy to the desperatel


By Philippa Tomson

Fastening his smart little jacket — slightly baggy at the sides but comfortable — I stand back and beam at Billy with pride. This is his first day at ‘work’ and I’m willing him to do well. As he walks into the room, he is greeted with cries of delight. There are so many smiling faces ready to greet him, he doesn’t know who to approach first. This new boy obviously is a big hit.

Billy, my two-year-old Tibetan Terrier, is on his first official day of duty at St Cuthbert’s Hospice in Durham as a Pets As Therapy dog. He is there to provide people with terminal or life-limiting illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis, cancer and motor neurone disease with a much deserved and longed-for cuddle.

He is one of more than 5,000 dogs, and a select few cats, working throughout the UK, visiting hospices, hospitals, care homes and special-needs units, providing love and comfort to more than 150,000 desperately ill people, many of whom are missing dearly loved pets back home.

Yet according to Pets As Therapy founder and chief executive Maureen Hennis, these visits provide more than a bit of light relief and can actually help improve the health of patients.

‘The act of stroking a dog reduces both blood pressure and stress levels and brings a little bit of comfort and normality to a life which might be spent mainly in a hospital or hospice,’ she explains.

Maureen launched the charity along with a group of friends in 1983 after becoming convinced of the therapeutic benefits that stroking a pet could bring to patients.

And it’s a role that my dog Billy, I am proud to observe, is embracing with relish.

He scampers over to the chair of retired civil servant Beryl Colquhoun, 76.

‘Aren’t you gorgeous!’ she cries. ‘The best looking lad in here, I can tell you.’

Beryl is here to give her husband, Stan, a break from being her full-time carer.

Having lost her own dog, Bracken, three years ago, she’s delighted to have a pooch back in her life, albeit briefly.

And she’s not the only one: ‘Didn’t you see the change in people’s faces when he came in? They lit up,’ she remarks, looking about the room. ‘It relaxes you, it takes you out of yourself and it’s something a bit different, something wonderful.’

Soon I feel like we are on a royal visit: so many people are eager to meet Billy, it’s hard to ration out our time. Next in line is Joan Gallent, 72. Like everyone else here, it’s obviously a relief for her to have something else on which to focus and talk about other than illness. ‘I’m a retired nurse so I already know dogs love contact with people,’ she says.

Miracle: Billy after his accident. He escaped from the garden and ran across a dual carriageway, where he was hit by a car with such force that its number plate split

‘He gives you those lovely looks and my heart melts. He makes me feel wanted.’

Such is Billy’s impact that soon members of staff from other departments are popping their heads round the door to see what’s going on. ‘They’ll be talking about this for the rest of the week,’ says day hospice lead nurse Michelle Paris. Many patients are unable to keep a dog themselves, she explains, and miss the interaction.

So how did Billy land this role? As is often the case, it’s all down to me, his proud and pushy parent. I decided to get him approved as a Pets As Therapy dog quite simply because last year, on Christmas Eve, I nearly lost him.

As I’ve already described in this paper earlier in the year, Billy had escaped from the garden of our home and run across a dual carriageway, where he hit a car with such force that the driver’s registration plate snapped in half.

Having suffered two leg fractures, a broken tail, a nasty gash on his forehead and, most worryingly, a near-collapsed lung, no one knew if he would make it. I spent Christmas Eve bolt upright on the sofa dreading the ‘I’m terribly sorry’ phone call from the emergency vet. But that call never came.

In what I can only describe as a Christmas miracle, Billy survived the night and the night after that. We brought him home in a very sorry state on Boxing Day and he remained on full bed rest for six weeks while his fractures healed.

Come the spring, he was almost back to his normal self. Soon, his excitement returned whenever I came home and he’d jump up and down like a pogo-stick.

His daily play fights with his big brother, my other Tibetan Terrier, named BG, began again as did his ability to leap eagerly into the car boot for his walks. His tail, which I feared might have to be docked, was now proudly carried high on his back again.

Billy’s amazing recovery and our unbridled relief got me thinking. The fact that he was still here was down to the members of the public who tended him at the roadside in the aftermath of the accident, and the wonderful veterinary staff who nursed him back to health.

So wouldn’t it be appropriate if he gave something back? Plus, his temperament is so gentle and loving that it made sense to share him with others.

I had already done some charity work for our local hospice in my role as an ITV television presenter so it would be an ideal place to visit. I checked out the Pets As Therapy website, filled in the forms and booked an assessment.

No pet can join the register unless they’re assessed, so Billy had some work to do.

Many dogs fail to make the grade, however good-natured they may be, due to their boisterous behaviour and hyperactive tendencies. I don’t think my other dog would pass for those very reasons. He would lap up the attention of patients but he would also lap up every crumb on every surface.

Billy, in contrast, is much less naughty so I thought him ideal for this volunteering role.

Philippa with Billy Boy on his first day, left, and Christine McGowan, right, gets a cuddle from the Tibetan Terrier

His assessor was a vet and the test would take place in our local veterinary surgery. Now I know that dogs don’t possess the memory banks of humans, but I know they learn through association. And this was the very place where Billy had been poked and prodded and wired up to all sorts of paraphernalia just eight months previously. No wonder he shivered in my arms as we sat in the waiting room and, for a fleeting moment, my confidence in him wavered.

This assessment was all about temperament and attitude. A nervous, anxious dog could never be trusted in a place like a hospice, with busy corridors and unexpected noises. What’s more, they would never sit still long enough to be patted and stroked by patients.

However, once the assessment began and the vet spoke to him in soothing tones, backed up with titbits, Billy’s nerves evaporated.

Response to being handled? Loved it — tick. Response to a food treat? Gently accepted without mouthing or snatching — tick. Response to a tray being thrown on a floor? Ignored — tick. Behaviour on lead? — minimal command required.

This dog, whose life had hung in the balance not so long ago, ticked every box. Even better, the experience taught him that the veterinary surgery isn’t an intimidating place after all, especially when a few treats are on offer.

Placid: A dog has to go through a variety of tests to see if it has the right temperament to deal with people in a hospice environment

Six weeks later and here we are, or rather, here is Billy. It’s not about me. To all intents and purposes I’m just the driver who spends an hour a week or a fortnight ferrying him from A to B.

I’m not suggesting Billy, or indeed any other dog, can heal people, but he can help them forget their life-limiting condition if only for a few moments while they run their fingers though his soft, sweetly-smelling coat.

Christine McGowan, 42, who has visited the hospice for three years, agrees. She has a rare genetic condition which leaves her confined to a wheelchair so she comes along for a few hours every week and stays for a few days’ respite care every four months.

‘Everyone makes a fuss of a person in a wheelchair,’ she says. ‘It’s nice that I can reciprocate it by making a fuss of dogs like Billy.

‘He keeps people like me calm because he is calm. What he must think of us lot smiling and watching him, though, I’ll never know.’

But it’s Maureen, chief executive of Pets As Therapy, who sums up the valuable work these dogs do.

‘I once visited the same nursing home for 17 years,’ she says. ‘One lady always used to sit by the door every week waiting for my dog to arrive. All she ever said was: “She’s my ray of sunshine, she’s my reason for staying alive”. You don’t forget things like that.’

I only hope these ladies won’t forget their precious moments with Billy. A year ago, I nearly lost him. A year on, I couldn’t be more proud of him.

For more information, contact the Pets As Therapy website by clicking here.


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