Dogs could aid spinal injury patients' rehabilitation

A pioneering new scheme, launched at the National Spinal Injuries Centre (NSIC) at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, could see dogs aiding patients' rehabilitation.

Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust has joined forces with assistance dog charity Dogs for Good to see how specially trained dogs can help patients with their recovery. The new treatment - known as Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) - has already been established in many parts of the world, but is less advanced here in the UK.

The pilot will last for eight weeks, consisting of weekly one hour sessions, and involve trained therapy dog Danny with specialist handler Iris Smolkovic working alongside occupational therapists Alicia Hing and Ruth Peachment.

Charlotte Simcock, 26, suffered a spinal stroke in October last year which left her with limited movement from the chest down, and has been a patient at the NSIC since January. Before she leaves the centre in July, she hopes to regain better movement in her arms so she can feed herself, and increase her confidence to go out into the community in her wheelchair. 

A series of tasks such as throwing a ball, tugging a toy, and grooming are part of carefully planned sessions designed to help Charlotte progress towards her goals. Charlotte, who worked as a veterinary nurse before her illness, is excited to be part of the project.

She said, "I have a dog at home who I am really missing while I am in hospital. I can’t wait to get started on this and am so pleased I was chosen to be part of the trial. I am sure this will really help me improve my mobility and will also help me to gain the confidence I need to get out and about once again."

The project will explore potential benefits such as motivation of the dog in engaging patients, the role of the dog and the effectiveness of the technique. The impact on the patients' wellbeing and happiness will also be looked into during this period. 

Ruth Peachment, occupational therapy clinical specialist at the NSIC, said, "This is a very exciting pilot that we have been planning for some time with Dogs for Good. The potential to help and motivate patients is huge. If the pilot is successful we are hoping to extend the scheme to help children too."

Hayley Stimpson, AAI Services Development Adviser at Dogs for Good, said, "We are passionate about what can happen when we bring people and dogs together. We are keen to see how effective animal assisted intervention techniques will be in helping patients to achieve their rehabilitation goals, and whether it will enable them to progress more quickly than anticipated."

Photo: Stoke Mandeville Dogs for Good project Therapy Dog Danny, handler Iris Smolkovic, occupational therapist Alicia Hing, patient Charlotte Simcock

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