St Andrew's Healthcare

The Beastly Beasts have been visiting people at St Andrew's Healthcare as Pets as Therapy dogs since 2008. Our Pets As Therapy page tells you about becoming a PAT dog; here we want to tell you about what it's like being a PAT dog at St Andrew's and why it's so worth doing; other peoples experiences of being a PAT dog will be different from, but just as rewarding as, ours.

Why St Andrew's?

On The Beastly Beasts first PAT dog assessments, Pat (the lady that did them) asked if we had somewhere to visit. We hadn't so she suggested St Andrew's. She said that she visited people there, but also said that it wasn't everyone's idea of a place to visit.


St Andrew's is a mental health hospital that looks after some of the most vulnerable people in society, some of whom have been in the criminal justice system. Some of them have had bad things done to them, some of them have done bad things. In addition, all the wards are locked wards and most have an airlock system which means there are two doors on the way in, only one of which can be open at a time; i.e. there is always at least one locked door between the ward and the world. Some find that a bit daunting; it's not, read on …

We shadowed Pat on one of her visits to a male youth ward. Because we were new the lads bigged it up big time – to start with. 10 minutes later they were sitting on the sofa stroking Kai; we were sold on what PAT dogs could do.

Our Visits

We started out visiting one ward every couple of weeks; initially to see one lady in particular, we'll call her Angie (not her real name – none on this page are); Angie was in her mid‐20's and had Huntingdon's Disease Huntingdon's DiseaseHuntingdon's is a genetic disease and while everyone is affected differently, typical symptoms are: movement – movements may happen that you don't expect, while doing what you do want to do becomes more difficult, cognitive – difficulties with planning and thinking, behaviour – changes in behaviour and personality.Find out more. Sadly Angie has died, but she loved seeing the dogs. In our early days we would walk in the grounds and have a chat with her. As her illness progressed she started using a wheelchair and her speech deteriorated, but according to staff it would improve, as did her demeanour, during out visits.

There was (and still is) a shortage of PAT dogs at St Andrew's (it is a big hospital) and we were asked if we'd visit other wards. We now visit people in 9 wards; 4 one week, 5 the next. Our visits are about 2 hours each week; this is enough for The Beasts.

One of the first wards we added to our list is for gentlemen with dementia. On our first visit to the ward Mack (who was a brilliant PAT dog) went up to a guy and nudged his arm. The guy reached out and started stroking him; some of the staff were literally in tears at this. It turned out that this guy did not react to the world and sat all day with his head in his hands. Within a few visits he was talking to Mack and telling him what a good boy he was; Mack had got through where others had failed.

Another ward we started visiting was a ladies ward. One of the ladies (we'll call her Hilda) fell in love with Mack (told you he was good) and called him "My dog" and wanted photos of him with her to show her daughter. Taking pictures on site is totally forbidden for obvious reasons, but after lots a paperwork we managed to get permission and get Hilda her photos with Mack. Not long after Mack suddenly died; it was a very sad visit when we broke the news to Hilda.

Do The Beasts Enjoy It?

Yes they do. There is competition to be one of those that get to go and as we drive through the gates they get really excited. As soon as they are out of the car they are eager to get to their friends.

It is important that the dogs do enjoy their visits and as such not all of The Beastly Beasts are or have been Pets As Therapy dogs; some because they are too old and it would be too much for them, others because they would not enjoy it.

Do Our Visits Do Any Good?

Unequivocally, yes they do.

Research shows that stroking an animal releases endorphins in the brain of both the person and the animal. This is both calming and therapeutic in itself. Anecdotal evidence and other research suggests that happy people and people with something to look forward to get better faster or don't deteriorate as fast in the case of degenerative diseases.

But while research is all well and good, there is one thing that conclusively proves how worthwhile our visits are every time; the smiles that appear on peoples faces when we walk in the room.

Staff clearly think they make a difference too. The Beastly Beasts were specifically asked to visit one young lady (we'll call her Katie) who loves dogs. Apparently she was in a bad place emotionally and needed something to cheer her up and the staff knew of us and thought that we would be just the job. What they didn't know was that Lilly had just turned up. Although at about 5 months old she was too young to be an official PAT dog, it is an indisputable fact that a puppy in your face is good therapy, so breaking all the rules, Lilly started visiting Katie. The pair formed a very special bond and Lilly became known as Katie's dog by staff and other girls on the ward. Lilly would be pleased to see everyone else, then launch herself at Katie. If Katie was on a home visit Lilly would greet everyone, but clearly be disappointed that Katie wasn't there, such was the depth of their friendship. It was a friendship that lasted about 5 years; Katie left St Andrew's to a hospital nearer her family.

We are often told by staff on the dementia wards we visit how much more responsive the patients are during our visits. Patients will spontaneously tell us about dogs they have had and this gives something else for staff to talk to them about.

And we can be peace-makers too. We always phone ahead to make sure it is OK to visit a ward and if the ward is unsettled we are asked not to visit that week. However, one time we went on to one of the young men's wards and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife; no idea what had happened, but due to the number of staff around one chap the "who" was obvious; he was taken to sit at one end of the room between two staff. The young man in question loves The Beastly Beasts so we asked if we should come over. "If you are sure" said one member of staff; we went over. As soon as the young man began to stroke the dogs the atmosphere in the room melted away; the staff member said "That is incredible".

The Summer Party

We can't talk about St Andrew's without mentioning the Summer Party – it is the best afternoon of the year. This is held in the grounds and has loads of entertainment for the patients, some of which – mostly the music – is provided and performed by the patients themselves. We get to see all our friends and meet loads of other people in the space of an afternoon, and The Beastly Beasts get fed bits of burger and sausage, so they are well happy.

In Conclusion

We have a special and in many ways a privileged place in peoples lives. We bring enjoyment, we are from the outside, we come to the hospital but we are not of the hospital and do not represent any kind of authority (which staff do, no matter how nice they are – and the staff at St Andrew's are brilliant; as in really brilliant). So we, for want of a better way of putting it, bring a bit of normality to peoples lives and mean that they have a nicer time while at St Andrew's, and maybe even help those that will leave get ready for that day.

While being a PAT dog at St Andrew's might not be for everyone, it is for us. As mentioned earlier, there is always at least one locked door between us and the outside; this has never been a problem. We always phone ahead to ask if we can visit and if a ward is unsettled the answer is "Not this week". In all the time we have been visiting we have always been greeted with smiles and people eager to see us.

If you are thinking about where to visit, please consider places that at first glance might seem a bit of a challenge – maybe shadow a visit if you can, or perhaps go there anyway; you might be surprised – you will make a difference.

St Andrew's Healthcare
AddressSt Andrew's Healthcare
Cliftonville Road
Telephone 01604 616000
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