Young Gloucestershire is always looking for new and innovative ways to meet the needs of young people. With mental health an ever increasing concern, both nationally and locally, we have been expanding and diversifying our approach. Over two years ago we introduced Buddy, a bouncy Border Collie to the teams here at YG and Infobuzz. Buddy was our first foray into the world of Animal Assisted Therapy.

This, now widely accepted form of therapy, uses the healing nature of animals to support people as they explore their mental health. Pets can help increase social interaction and reduce anxiety. Buddy initially joined the team and slowly began his training by learning basic commands and getting use to meeting lots of people. He is an incredibly social pup and has helped place so many young people using our services at ease.

In 2020 we were joined by Vanessa Radwell who took over Buddy’s training and began introducing him to more young people at the charity. Vanessa has a background in dog training. Having previously worked for Hearing Dogs for Deaf People and the RSPCA as well as also working on support programmes for inner city teens using horses to build confidence. “Buddy has been such a joy to work with, he is such a fun and enthusiastic dog. He has had an incredible impact on the young people he has met. I have watched young people who could barely talk to me slowly come alive with Buddy’s support. You really can’t underestimate the achievements he has made.”

Leah is one of those young people (pictured above with Minnie the therapy dog.) Now 20 years old, Leah has been working with YG for over two years. In her past, Leah has been assaulted, she continues to deal with eating disorders and is currently living in supported housing. Leah has worked with YG’s counsellors to address her mental health and Buddy was able to offer an additional layer of support. “Counselling can be intense. They push you and make you talk about things that are difficult. Working with Buddy was such a release. It is warm and cathartic, cuddles and lots of laughs. You get real love out of this, dogs know exactly how you are feeling….I can go from being a moody bitch to having a big smile on my face.”

However the role of therapy dog is not an easy one. Over time it has become clear to dog trainer Vanessa, that Buddy is very noise sensitive; “this can cause him anxiety. When he recoils as a lorry drives past the window for instance, it is difficult both for him and the young person to be able to support one another. Although it’s a different skill set, to help give people an idea, over 30% of dogs training to become a guide dog won’t make it. Some just don’t have the temperament, some may have a health condition or some simply retire. At this stage it has become clear that Buddy’s sensitisation to noise means that it is just not fair for him to continue in his working role. He will therefore be retiring to enjoy his life in the countryside.”

Buddy, who is owned by CEO of Young Gloucestershire, Tracy Clark, will certainly still feature as an important member of the team here at YG but for now he has retired from his working role but will still be making guest appearances around the office and keeping staff on their toes. Vanessa remains however, using her wealth of experience and knowledge of working with animals to explore YG’s next steps.

“The experience of introducing Buddy to the organisation has really helped drive home the successful role that animals can play in supporting young people with their mental health. That is why I’m really excited to be staying on with YG and exploring other ways we can bring animals into our work with young people. We all know the profound benefits animals have on our lives and how they can make us feel, they can relax us, make our confidence grow, increase our activity levels and make us less isolated. Studies have found that even just having an animal in the room or just having contact with one can lower blood pressure, boost mood and decrease feelings of loneliness.

“I will be building partnerships with local providers including Riding for the Disabled and Over Farm to open up opportunities for young people to explore their emotions while working with animals. Dogs will continue to feature in our work as we introduce Minnie, my own Cocker Spaniel to the team. It’s a really exciting opportunity to look at the next steps of our animal adventure and build on the fabulous work that Buddy started.”

With Buddy stepping down and this is just the next chapter in YG’s journey to explore the world of animal assisted therapy.