Day 6
Day 6

Waggy tails and smiles this Christmas

Suzi and her owner Stephen Sims are regular visitors to the ellenor hospice at Northfleet. Patients, their families and staff always look forward to her friendly wet nose and waggy tail.

And this Christmas Suzi’s fans are in for a real treat – she will be arriving in her new festive outfit, carefully created from items bought in charity shops by Stephen and his wife Pat.

The four-year-old black Labrador retriever cross is a PAT (Pets as Therapy) dog who helps people cope with life’s challenges by making them smile and feel relaxed.

She has been visiting the hospice since June, meeting patients and their families on The Green and occasionally visiting the in-patient ward. She is also very popular with the nurses and other ellenor staff and especially enjoys lying on their feet!

Stephen said: “I’m not sure if she’s terribly pleased about the new Christmas outfit, but we are definitely looking forward to coming along to the ellenor events and joining in with the celebrations. She loves all the attention. All our dogs have always been spoiled at Christmas. They even get presents from the family and from our neighbours. Everyone loves Suzi – she is such a good-natured dog.”

Stephen and Pat, who have always been dog lovers, are puppy raisers for Guide Dogs for the Blind. At the moment they are training Lydia, a seven-month-old yellow Labrador, who also recently paid a visit to the hospice. The two dogs are looking forward to a bit of rough and tumble this Christmas.

Stephen said: “Suzi loves opening the presents more than she enjoys the toys inside, whereas Lydia loves toys. She has a whole basket of them. She loves to greet people with a toy in her mouth, preferably two toys!”

Suzi was originally taken on by Stephen and Pat as a potential guide dog, but unfortunately an illness delayed her progress, and it was decided she would no longer be suitable for the training programme.

Stephen said: “She picked up a virus and was in dog hospital for 12 weeks and then it took six months to get her back to what she was. It’s a shame as she would have made a fantastic guide dog, but it was probably the best decision and it worked to our advantage. We were offered Suzi and of course we couldn’t say no – especially after everything she had been through. She is now our pet.

“When she was young, she was easily distracted by other dogs or animals. She would even bark at animals on TV, but as she has matured, she has become calmer. She doesn’t get too excited about other dogs – unless she is in the back of the car, then she has to bark at them!”

Stephen is a volunteer speaker for Guide Dogs and takes Suzi to plenty of fundraising events.

He said: “It seemed a shame for her not to do something after the training she had and about two years ago I came across the PAT scheme, which seemed the perfect solution. I had recently taken early retirement form my job as a chartered surveyor, so I had some spare time. I needed something to do. I’m not someone who can sit around and do nothing. PAT came to check her out, make sure she wasn’t too jumpy and was the right temperament, and chatted to me too.”

As part of the PAT scheme, Suzie also visits a care home near Erith and an infant and junior school in Bexley Village, where she is the star attraction of their Read to Dogs initiative.

Stephen said: “She sits with the more nervous readers, and you would be surprised they grow in confidence when they are reading aloud.

“She is also part of an anger management programme for the older children in the primary school. The kids can come in with one of the teachers and just sit and stroke and cuddle Suzi and talk to us.

“I think that stroking a dog does help people feel calmer. You probably have to be a dog lover in the first place, but I have also known Suzi to bring a smile to the faces of people who are not particularly doggy people.”

As well as boosting people’s mental health, pet therapy has been proved to lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, release endorphins, and even reduce pain.

Stephen said: “There is definitely something in it but quite what it is and how it works I just don’t know. Mankind has had an affinity with dogs for many thousands of years. Of course, we have always used them as service dogs, but they are also our best friends.

“You’d have to be fairly wooden to not see how much enjoyment people get out of meeting dogs like Suzi. Even if it is just five minutes, that’s five minutes that are worth it.

“I have always been fairly lucky in my life with a fairly good job, financially comfortable and in reasonable health, so it is nice to give something back.

Stephen and Pat might just have to be a bit careful about their Christmas dinner this year though. Two Christmases ago, Suzi treated herself to some turkey from the kitchen worktop when no one was looking -- although apparently it is the only theft she has ever committed!