Fifty-four million people in the UK own animals. Within The Cotswolds, this is usually either a dog, cat or horse. Why would we do such a thing? They’re unhygienic, smelly, get hair everywhere, and have a tendency to relieve themselves on our furnishings…
The short answer as to why, is love.
It’s unlikely you’ll meet a pet owner who hates their pet. We look past their flaws and we see their joyous virtues. Their abilities to make us laugh by getting stuck in their cat flap, forcing us out for walks that we really need but can’t be bothered for and their cuddles on the sofa.
Animals have an amazing knack at helping us humans. Our relationships with them are unlike any we could experience with a fellow person. A quick google search of “Do Animals Help Humans Health” will return endless studies showing how animals can lower our blood pressure, detect seizures before they happen, aid in a multitude of therapies such as speech therapy or physical rehabilitation, and so much more.
We met some extraordinary people with even more extraordinary animals.
Some amazing dogs can completely change lives by becoming guide dogs. Zoe Bates lives in Birmingham and works for a charity for the visually impaired, Birmingham Vision, she got her guide dog Lucky, two and a half years ago and she’s not looked back since. Zoe gushed over how wonderful the Labrador-Retriever cross is, listing off her traits: loving, loyal, inquisitive, friendly. “She’ll go to anybody and have a bit of fuss, she’s just such a happy dog”.
Listening to Zoe proudly swoon over her pup, it’s hard to believe she didn’t want Lucky. “I didn’t want a guide dog at all. I didn’t feel I warranted one. I was heavily pushed into it by my husband who said: this is getting beyond a joke, you’re relying on everybody. Now I wouldn’t be without her”. Zoe describes how Lucky has helped restore her confidence, not only can she do the little things, like pick the kids up, she can now travel independently. “My independence has rocketed. I’ve even managed to get another job. I now travel down to London and Wales, whereas before Lucky I wouldn’t have done any of that whatsoever without someone with me”. Having a guide dog has allowed Zoe to be herself and give her the confidence to do anything. “Before, with a cane, you feel more vulnerable and exposed, whereas having a guide dog she’s like my protector. She’s brought back my confidence tenfold”.
Not only can animals help individuals, they can encourage people to help each other. Amanda is the owner of Alamanda Therapy Animals, a farm in Basildon, Essex which is home to (deep breath in): two therapy dogs, one mini dachshund, one Spanish mastiff, two skinny pigs, a couple chickens, a couple Rex rabbits, two miniature horses, various cats, and occasional rats. Quite the menagerie. Amanda started her charity after gaining an unusual best friend; Applause, a miniature horse. Amanda suffers with M.E, a type of chronic fatigue syndrome. She spoke about how her animals get her up every day and keep her going as well as helping others who sick or injured.
Amanda takes her herd to whoever is in need, visiting care homes, schools, hospices and to family homes. She describes the empathy her animals have and the important moments her animals create. “I am very blessed to be able to do what we do. There’s so many experiences that stand out to me, an autistic child who wouldn’t talk English, until I brought the horse to her. A boy with Down syndrome would sit chatting to my Leonberger dog but he refused to speak to people. An old man with Alzheimer’s crying because the therapy horse reminded him of his old racing days. There was a palliative child who we surprised with a unicorn turning up at her home. Her and her sister took pictures of each other with the unicorn…two weeks before she died.”
Both children and animals sometimes need a little extra help with their behaviour and coming out of their shell. Cheltenham Animal Shelter runs a one of a kind education course for struggling youths. The HALT course, (Humans and Animals Learning Together) is designed to help disadvantaged young people together with abandoned, badly behaved dogs. Working together helps improve both the dog’s and child’s behaviour, paving the way for the child to go on to mainstream school and for the dog to find a forever home. Education Officer Gina Bishopp explains how the course works:
“We start the kids with small animals, guinea-pigs and rabbits, we assess their confidence and see how they get on with tasks. We then build up to cats and dogs, matching suitable dogs with the right kids, getting them to try some training and basic commands. We always include a day trip usually to a local agricultural collage, to show the kids vocational career paths, not just academic ones”.
The course is the only one running in the whole country and it’s looking to expand to work with vulnerable adults after their success with children:
“There was one boy who was really shut down. He didn’t talk, read, or write. By the end of the course he was really communicative. He put his all into the course and afterwards his teachers were telling us how chatty he now was. It’s a massive deal for both the kids and the animals. When a dog goes from being difficult to work with, to being trained to sit or look, even when our staff couldn’t train them, it’s very rewarding”.
Whether they’re acting as our eyes, helping with illness, or improving children’s behaviour, animals really can have astonishing impacts on humans. We may laugh at how stupid the cat is for falling off the counter, or the dog for chasing his tail, but we should remember not to overlook animal-kinds intelligence and unique abilities.