Dogs for Good rise to the challenge the coronavirus pandemic brings

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20 January 2021
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With the world still gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, Elizabeth Perry investigates how one charity is coping with its impact.

The charity Dogs for Good trains dogs to support a wide variety of clients, from people with disabilities, to autistic children, and those suffering with dementia.

The organisation’s National Training Centre is based in Banbury, Oxfordshire, and there are two satellite offices in the north west and south west of the country.

Currently, Dogs for Good has 311 assistance dog partnerships, plus 12 community dogs, who work with their specialist handlers to help people to improve their independence, well-being, and skills. In addition, the family dog team gives advice and support to help families with autistic children to get the most out of their relationships with their pet dogs.

So how has the organisation continued to provide the services that its clients rely on?

“The first thing to recognise is how quickly this came upon us,” emphasised Chris Muldoon, operations manager at Dogs for Good. “Every strategic plan went out of the window overnight.

“We formed an emergency group so each time the coronavirus situation changes decisions are made very quickly. And we’ve built communication skills to the point where it’s almost instant.

“There hasn’t been a media we haven’t exploited to keep people up to speed.

“We’ve also looked at how to refine some of the processes of the organisation. It’s not an easy thing to train dogs while working from home, but we’ve managed to find solutions,” said Chris.

Safety first

Clearly there has been an impact on the dogs’ training, as access to the places where the dogs need to train, such as supermarkets, GP surgeries, and public transport is limited or unavailable. But from the puppy socialisers through to the trainers and instructors, everyone has been given new and safe methods of working with the dogs and clients.

“We’ve had to look at staff safety, from how vehicles are used to transport the dogs to and from training, to social interaction with the dogs,” said Chris, who also revealed that the dogs were cleaned regularly.

“We have a huge number of protocols when it comes to handling the dogs, such as staff gloving and masking up. All these procedures mean things are taking longer, which impacts on dog training time,”
he added.

With almost everyone now required to wear a mask when shopping or on public transport, the charity’s dogs have also been trained to accept the ‘new look’ that humans take for granted.

“Our more robust dogs are taking it in their stride,” said Chris. “They accept that their human looks different whereas some of our more sensitive dogs are requiring
a lot more support to cope with it.”

There is also the issue of discarded PPE. “There’s a new pandemic of litter, including masks, so whereas before when our dogs, whether being socialised or working, would explore using scent, we now need to be very careful about exposure to littered masks,” said Chris.

However, Chris is eager for people to continue interacting with the dogs. “The dogs require social interaction so we don’t want people to be afraid of touching them,” he said. “Otherwise, the dogs will pick up on the fear factor and it creates a vicious circle.”

He’s clear that the charity sees this as the new norm.

“This will be forever, and we need to have protocols and practices in place that the public will be comfortable with.

“We want to be sure that our puppies are still accepted by the community for the job they do,” said Chris.

Image above: Dogs for Good CEO Peter Gorbing.

Looking to the future

Many of the charity’s services have been redeveloped and moved online in the form of virtual training and workshops, using every form of technology from Zoom and WhatsApp to social media.

Plus, over the last few months, a library of videos demonstrating training techniques, as well as games to keep dogs stimulated, has been created for clients and volunteers.

This new approach to training seems to be a success with great feedback from clients signalling that the new protocols are working.

Peter has nothing but praise for everyone at Dogs for Good. “My team has done a magnificent job of adjusting to the new world. I’m very proud of the way the organisation took this on and did the best we possibly could in an incredibly difficult situation.”

Funding worries

With businesses under increasing pressure and unemployment levels rising, charities are suffering from a fall in income. In addition, many of the usual fundraising activities, which in a normal year contribute a significant amount to the charity’s income stream, have had to be cancelled.

“It’s a worry because we are not quite sure when it will end,” admitted Peter Gorbing, CEO of Dogs for Good. “When we went into lockdown initially, we reforecasted our budget and, in fact, we’ve done better than our worst fears. There has been a significant fall in income, but that’s true across the board for
all charities.

“We’ve been very careful with expenditure and tried not to do things that will affect the delivery of our services. To some extent we’ve fallen back on the reserves but, if all goes well, most will be intact. “

Unlike many organisations, staff were not furloughed at Dogs for Good, but moved to working from home.

“We chose not to furlough our staff because we wanted to keep delivering services and maintain our profile, as well as do what fundraising we could,” Peter confirmed. “We had a very clear remit to support clients and our dogs. I think that decision was a very good decision for us.”

Image above: Zoe with Sheila, after enjoying an off-lead run.

Client’s view

“Suddenly, everything was cut off overnight”

Zoe Bateman, from Reading, Berkshire, has hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos (ED) syndrome, a rare inherited condition. She was partnered with Sheila, her four-year-old Labrador X retriever, two years ago.

“I suffered from depression and had panic attacks, which improved brilliantly after getting Sheila. She opened everything up for me and I was able to make friends,” Zoe recalled.

But when the pandemic struck, everything changed. “Suddenly, everything was cut off overnight,” Zoe said. “I felt more unwell and lockdown made me more depressed again.”

Sheila helped Zoe cope with the monotony of lockdown. “I still had to get up in the morning and feed her
and take her for a walk to the woods at the end of our street, and that routine really helped.”

But Zoe was also anxious that her dog was getting stressed. “I worried that Sheila would forget how to do things,” she admitted. To help her assistance dog to stay focused, Zoe stocked up on garden games for Sheila to play, and had regular contact with her instructor, Laura.

“We talk through WhatsApp, and Laura told me how to train Sheila so she got used to people wearing masks. Also, we taught her some new tasks to give her brain something to do.”

Zoe explained how Laura advised her to set up a ‘pretend cafe’ to keep Sheila’s training up-to-date. “I got her ready in her jacket and lead and led her around the outside of the house and made her sit like she would if we were out. It’s all about practising normal routines.”

Following the initial lockdown, Zoe was able to go out but was concerned about people approaching to stroke Sheila. “Because of my illness, I do worry about people getting too close,” she said. “Instead, I’ve been more open in online spaces and that’s been a good thing about lockdown. More people are happy to do video calls or interact online, and my mental health is starting to get better again too.”

Image above: Most training is currently via video calls.

Instructor’s view

“We had to adapt quite quickly”

Ella McNulty, from Reading, Berkshire, has been a Dogs for Good instructor for four years and will visit at least seven clients a week.

“We felt things were changing so we started putting procedures in place before the first lockdown. We had to adapt quite quickly,” she said.

“We use video calls so we still have the opportunity to see the dogs, or clients record videos and then send them to us to watch,” Ella explained.

For some dogs, lockdown proved a positive experience as it offered more time to build bonds. “The dog
I placed just before the first lockdown was sensitive so he benefited from that time to settle in,” Ella recalled. “Now the partnership has got a good foundation to move forward.”

Many of the clients now contact each other using new Facebook groups, which have helped to prevent feelings of isolation. The groups also offer clients the opportunity to share problems, and helpful tips on how to resolve them.

 However, not everyone has the option of using technology, so the team make sure those clients are contacted by phone and sent printed information.

“We do have clients who don’t have access to the internet which is why it’s important to use as many different modes of communication as possible,” said Ella.

Overall, she is pleased with the progress. “On the whole, all the dogs have done really well and clients have kept up routines and training. Some sensitive dogs need time to build back up again, but that’s something we are supporting people to do,” said Ella.

“I definitely think face-to-face contact is best and online training is not a substitute for that, but it can be used in conjunction with it. We’ve had some really good feedback about the use of social media to communicate and share knowledge, so we will keep that going to support our clients.”

Want to know more?

Find out about the values of Dogs for Good, its work, and how you can help and get involved by visiting www.dogsforgood.org