Getting a puppy was no spur of the moment decision; it was something Abby planned for and looked forward to for a long time. When she brought Zara, a gregarious Golden Retriever, home – and then into work – she had no idea the positive impact it would have on the young people she works with.
As a Residential Care Case Manager with MacKillop, Abby oversees the wellbeing and safety of young people living in residential care settings. She reflects on the therapeutic benefits of bringing Zara into the homes and how it brought out the best in young people.
For many children and young people living in residential care, mornings can be the toughest part of the day. They are often tired and struggle to wake up early. Bringing Zara up changed things completely, Abby says.
“When Zara did the wakeup call, the young people were so relaxed and happy; they just loved the affection. Zara helped them get up at an appropriate time rather than sleeping in. She really helped set their day up in a positive way.
“I remember one boy who is often quite heightened. Zara brought out a completely different side in him and a very caring nature. Another boy came on walks with us which was a great opportunity for exercise.
“Zara was a great conversation starter. It got the kids chatting about puppies and sparked interest in one of the girls to volunteer with animals. They would play with her, but also interact positively with each other and talk about the responsibility of caring for an animal and what’s involved.”
Bringing Zara along to a young person’s care team meeting helped that young person to engage in conversations on how they can bring out their best and thrive during their time in care.
“A lot of the time the young people don’t want to attend their care team meetings because it can be overwhelming to have all the professionals there, talking about them. Zara was a great distraction for him. He was playing with her the whole time but still engaging with the care team.
“It kept this young man calm and grounded and took away the feeling of being overwhelmed, especially when the team was talking about more challenging behaviours.”
Taking Zara into the homes brought a lot of joy with young people and helped create cohesion within the homes.
“One morning I brought Zara into one of the homes and all the young people were playing together. Zara was going from person to person, licking them all. All the young people were laughing and giggling. It was such a beautiful moment which really brought out the innocence of these kids who have been through really tough times.”
As well as bringing joy to young people in residential care, it was no surprise that Zara became very popular in the office.
“It was amazing how quickly news spread. People came from every corner of the office to pat and play with her. Everyone was so happy and calm. It really helped people relate find things in common to talk about.
“In crisis scenarios Zara was incredibly therapeutic – not just for me but for the whole team. We would debrief whilst patting her and feel so much better.”
The therapeutic effect of animals on people is well known. Animal therapy is a powerful tool in helping young people heal from trauma, but as Zara shows, even in informal settings there can be significant health and wellbeing benefits.