Paws for thought - meet some brainy dogs

PUBLISHED: 22:00 03 August 2015 | UPDATED: 12:08 08 January 2016

Brainy Dog

Brainy Dog "Hope" displaying her skills at the headquarters of Headway Suffolk in Ipswich. Headway client Phillip Symonds with trainer Sophie Mayes and Headway Suffolk CEO Helen Fairweather


When it comes to helping people cope with brain injury, dogs really can be a best friend, as Catherine Larner discovers

Brainy Dog Brainy Dog "Hope" displaying her skills at the headquarters of Headway Suffolk in Ipswich

The small black dog, Hope, coat gleaming, ears pricked, tail swinging from side to side, looks adoringly, transfixed by her owner, as she awaits the next instruction.

“Beg, walk, creep, wave, fetch” – each command meets with an immediate response and those watching cannot fail to smile, delighted at her performance.

Hope works with Sophie Mayes, at the Suffolk centre for the brain injury charity, Headway in Ipswich. She is one of their Brainy Dogs, trained to help people coming to terms with a life-changing neurological condition caused by accident, stroke or illness.

“One of the things that happen after a brain injury is that your personality changes,” says chief executive Helen Fairweather. “Friends and family feel they no longer know you, so will often walk away. We found that we had lots of lonely people who needed to love and be loved.”

Brainy Dog Brainy Dog "Hope" displaying her skills at the headquarters of Headway Suffolk in Ipswich. Hope with trainer Sophie Mayes

The scheme, mainly funded by the National Lottery, was launched in 2011. Since that time Felixstowe Blue Cross has worked with Sophie, the project co-ordinator, supplying dogs to be trained by a small team of prisoners from Hollesley Bay Prison. The dogs are then either given to a Headway client for adoption or, like Hope, work at the centre supporting clients and their carers.

“The dogs are taught standard commands, such as ‘sit’ and ‘stay’, as well as additional training to suit those with physical impairments,” says Sophie. “For example, the dogs are taught how to walk alongside a wheelchair, not to pull on their lead and not to chase cats or seagulls! They can also pick things up off the floor.

“But we don’t claim they are assistance dogs (dogs usually bred from birth, specifically for that purpose). We are working with dogs of all different breeds and ages.” The Brainy Dogs initiative is Helen’s idea, although she’s quick to point out that she is not a dog lover. Inspired by reading a book about a remarkable dog called Endal, who aided the recovery of a brain-injured former naval officer, Helen then saw a TV programme about prisoners training dogs to help people with physical disabilities in Ipswich, Australia.

“When I approached Hollesley Bay Prison with my idea I was put in touch with someone who had lived next to me 20 years previously – it was all meant to be!”

The initial concept was to offer well-trained pets for Headway clients, something they could love, which would love them back, without judging them.

“Since then it has blossomed,” says Helen. “Now it is much more than clients adopting dogs. Some people have visits from Sophie with a dog, some come in to our centre and stroke the pets as part of their rehab, some walk the dogs.”

Sophie also visits care homes or other Headway hubs with the dogs who provide a focal point for conversation, or a diversion through performing tricks.

“I show people the tricks Hope can do and they all have a go. One client had very poor speech but we carried out the trick using hand signals. His face lit up when he realised he was at the same level as everyone else.”

Rehabilitation and therapeutic tasks take on a different light when a dog is involved. Working on hand exercises with a physiotherapist can be tedious – stroking a dog is much more enjoyable. Walks aren’t popular either until someone is invited to take a dog for a walk.

The dogs also help people and carers through what can be a difficult, daunting and stressful time confronting the implications of a neurological condition. Sophie has a room at the centre with her dogs where people can take time out, chat or just watch the dogs.

The dogs also provide a warm and unusual welcome to everyone entering the centre, overcoming nerves or trepidation with trusting eyes and wagging tails.

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