We spoke to Pets As Therapy volunteer Barry Lea about becoming a Pets As Therapy volunteer, why pet therapy is important, and how he gained special permission to take his PAT dog, Holly, to visit his terminally ill father in Whiston Hospital.

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Pets As Therapy volunteer profile

Name: Barry Lea

Location: Merseyside

Became volunteer: 2017

PAT dog name: Crankross Caprice – Holly to her friends!

PAT dog breed: Labrador Retriever

PAT dog age: 3 years, 7 months

Our interview with Barry

How did your PAT dog, Holly, come into your life?

When my wife and I lived overseas (Hong Kong & Singapore) my wife volunteered at a dog shelter. She became involved in local pet therapy work – Dr Dog and Professor Paws programmes as well as a Labrador Club. I too became involved later and we handled our previous Labrador Retriever (Rosie) during visits to a variety of establishments.

We returned to UK in 2015 and sourced Holly as a puppy, in anticipation of losing Rosie (which we did, sadly, in 2017 when she was 16). It was my intention to have Holly registered as a PAT dog at the earliest opportunity. We’re amongst those that firmly believe that a house isn’t a home without a dog. Holly provides us with lots of love and free, daily, stress reduction, she’s my drinking buddy in the pub on occasions and we both keep fit from lots of exercise – walking 3-4 miles minimum every day.

What made you decide to apply to be a Pets As Therapy volunteer?

I had already been volunteering in pet therapy when I lived overseas. Pets As Therapy is a very well established, well respected and professional organisation, providing the perfect umbrella for such visits which I wanted to continue with in UK. Being a Pets As Therapy volunteer provides me with incredibly rewarding purpose in retirement.

Can you tell us about your visits?

We volunteer at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool. It’s one of the largest such hospitals in Europe. We visit 2-3 times a week. We visit most wards, waiting rooms, A & E and public areas, including the Main Atrium. We sometimes help out the physios and play specialists in trying to get children mobile again after their procedures. We also work, on occasions with the Clinical Psychologists with children who are severely cynophobic or have been bitten by dogs. Holly has 100% success rate with such cases to date. The hospital sometimes requests our presence to distract children with special needs and we’ve also been involved in end of life support which was terribly sad but much appreciated by family and friends. More recently we’ve also had visits to Whiston hospital on Merseyside.

And how does Holly find the visits?

When we set off for visits, she’s usually in the car well before me. She enjoys the fuss and especially the treats – morning biscuit from Radiology Reception, gravy bone for elevenses from Matron in Outpatients, chicken strips at lunchtime from the ladies in the restaurant, not to mention nibbles from some of the children – all factored into her daily diet, of course.  

Holly has also been picked up by the media during visits, even appearing on CBBC!

Working in a large children’s hospital means that there are lots of activities and events that we support. Holly has appeared in several, live, TV & radio broadcasts from the hospital e.g. Christmas parties, as well as external events. Local newspapers have featured Holly in several articles.

I’m always trying to support Pets As Therapy and spread the word about why it’s such a worthwhile charity. Holly always wears her Pets As Therapy uniform, and I had stickers designed featuring Holly which I distribute hundreds of every month.

I also recently compiled and provided a summary of the benefits of PAT visits which was distributed to staff throughout the hospital and produced a PowerPoint presentation to give to multi-disciplinary teams. I regularly point people to the PAT website and encourage them to consider PAT work where appropriate, and have raised several hundred pounds from family and friends. I also frequently speak to medical and other students at the hospital and tell them that medicine can only do so much, then there’s Labradors!

Holly also acted as a therapy dog for your own father whilst in hospital. Can you tell us about this?

Since late 2017 I had been communicating with staff at Whiston Hospital, one of the largest on Merseyside. Having heard about my well received PAT visits to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, they were keen to secure information to assist them in putting a case to management to allow Therapy Dogs access to the hospital.

During these discussions last year, by special permission, I took my Therapy Dog Holly into just one room, in one ward, 5B, to bring some joy to a terminally ill 89 year old patient – my father, Gerald Lea. Holly was overjoyed to see her “Grandad,” as was he to see her. He even gave her piece of toast as he had done every morning, in his own home, prior to his admission. It was tears all round and the staff were delighted to make Holly’s acquaintance also.

Whilst, sadly, dad passed away just days later, the legacy of this visit is that Whiston Hospital has now just formally approved Therapy Dog visits generally, for the first time in its 170 year history. I returned to Whiston with Holly recently to assist with the media launch and to try to repay some of the enormous kindness displayed towards my dad and his family by the staff on ward 5B and elsewhere.

Whilst Holly and I are committed to visits at Alder Hey, we will soon visit Whiston again to help hone their policy and hopefully, another PAT team can be found to help out on an ongoing, regular basis. Almost 1,000 people reacted positively to photos of our visit posted to the hospital Facebook so it’s essential that the momentum is maintained and I understand that, as a result, other hospitals in the region have expressed an interest in following suit.

Why do you think having therapy pets in hospitals is important?

Quite apart from all the studies which support the science behind the benefits, I’ve witnessed, at first hand, over many years, the positive impacts of Pets As Therapy volunteer visits.

I’ve seen children, screaming the place down at the thought of having bloods taken, turn silent at first sight of Holly, soon beaming and forgetting their woes in favour of giving her a pat and a biscuit. I’ve seen children, initially reluctant to try out a mended limb fracture, move mountains to reach her for a cuddle. I saw one child who’d remained silent and motionless for days, become animated and giggle uncontrollably when Holly appeared at his bedside, much to the astonishment of staff and his father. I’ve seen parents break down in tears of joy when children smile for the first time during lengthy hospital stays. I encountered a patient with severe dementia who hadn’t recognised family or friends for years or remember anything of his past, astound those around him by talking about his old pet after meeting Holly.

Every visit we’re met with hundreds of smiles from patients, staff and visitors, many of whom express their support for the work and say that they brighten their day. Thousands more have commented very favourably via feedback cards and social media.

Read more volunteer stories

We would love to hear your stories about Pets As Therapy, whether you’re a volunteer, an establishment that works with us, or someone who has been visited by a PAT pet. To submit your story please contact marketing@monchu.uk.

We are also always looking for new recruits to carry on the incredible work that volunteers like Barry and Holly do. If you are interested in volunteering for Pets As Therapy, please fill out our application form, and we’ll be in touch.