It’s National Dog Day on 26 August 2017, but in our house every day is a dog day with our lovely big soppy lab, Luke. In my article last year about dogs being a secret carer I spoke about the attachment children can have with animals, and what a difference it can make to their happiness and wellbeing. I’ve seen first-hand how children react positively around animals; they find a non-judgemental voice and someone to talk to without being judged or feeling disloyal to their birth family. Tina, one of my early placements, found talking to our family dog at the time an outlet for her anger and frustration and would sit for hours stroking him on the sofa. The dog used to lay with his head in her lap, appearing to just listen, and Tina was always calmer and less frustrated after spending time with him.
When doing respite last year for Lucy, a little girl with global developmental delay and physical disabilities, we saw how positively she responded to Luke. I’ve got precious photos of them lying on the floor, both asleep, curled around each other. Luke doesn’t know he’s special. In fact Luke doesn’t realise he has a tail or a great big bottom, as I’m forever being whipped by his huge waggy tail as he bombs passed me to meet J at the door after school and greet him with a big lick. M doesn’t seem to need the comfort of Luke any more (she still loves him and will casually give him a stroke as she walks past, but he no longer sleeps in her room and she doesn’t seem to need his therapeutic ear anymore). Luke seems to understand this and has started to gravitate towards J who, with the stress of moving into secondary school in September, is finding his easy affection and long soft ears a big comfort as he watches cartoons on the sofa and strokes him. I know, before he tells me, when he’s feeling anxious as he makes a beeline towards Luke.
We’ve never been surprised by the bond Luke has with the children in our care, even if they’ve only been here overnight, a few weeks or for regular respite. We know children gravitate towards his caring soft nature but it’s usually been one sided, with Luke giving the care and support but not necessarily the other way around. If Luke is unwell which he generally isn’t, he’ll come to me and I’ll pull a thorn out of his paw or clean an itchy ear which he can be prone to. But it’s unusual for one of the children to offer Luke comfort, which is what happened this week.
Luke had his annual check-up at the vet and, whilst he doesn’t like the injections for his booster shots he tolerates them but he hates the kennel cough vaccine which is a spray up his nose. I had to take baby S with me as it was a weekday and hubby was at work, but she enjoyed the new environment of the waiting room and the staff gave her lots of attention. However, as soon as the vet restrained Luke to give him the vaccine, she started shouting. When he struggled she got very animated, really shouting and waving at the vet with a very perturbed expression on her face. In the end we had to ask the receptionist to watch Baby S in order to give Luke his vaccine. The vet said she has never seen such a close bond between a baby and a dog before, and back in reception Baby S laughed and smiled as soon as she saw Luke again and he went straight to her, giving her a reassuring lick.
We are currently doing respite for Anthony, a toddler with complex medical needs, and whilst his initial reaction to Luke was fear, he has overcome this during the past week and not only got used to him but is seeking him out. He loves touching and exploring his fur and Luke sits patiently while he’s prodded and stroked. I supervise Luke’s interaction with Baby S and Anthony to ensure he doesn’t get irritated, but he placidly lays there while he’s poked and gets up and walks away when he’s had enough.
Specialist therapy dogs such as FASD (Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) Dogs or some Pets as Therapy Dogs are trained to ‘splat’ which means the dog lies on the child in a specific way releasing Oxytocin (dubbed the happy or love hormone) and helps to calm the child, releasing stress and anxiety. Nobody trained Luke to splat but he sits partially on J and it does help calm him down after a period of anxiety. Luke is not only our own personal therapy dog, he’s our family pet and we love him, even if he does lie in all the most awkward places and make the most obnoxious smells!
*photo courtesy of FASD Dogs UK