Meet Nelson. He’s huge. And hairy. He’s also incredibly calm, affable and intuitive. He has the perfect disposition to work in The National Hospital.
He’s part of a new initiative by UCLH Trust to introduce animal assisted therapy − in the form of dogs − for the patients. He’s been coming to The National Hospital for a few months now and already has fans all over the hospital, says his owner David Sharpe.
“Nelson is a Leonberger, and they’re known as the ‘gentle giants’ of the dog world. He is a natural with the patients, and loves going to strangers to be stroked and patted – he expects attention and he normally gets it! He is large dog, and many people can’t help but stare when they first see him and I just say, ‘Yes – it’s a dog!’ His size is actually a real help when he visits the many bed-bound patients here as he can just pop his head on their beds and they can reach him easily.
I always check with every single patient whether they want to have a visit from Nelson – not everyone is a fan. But I’d say seventy per cent of people are surprised and then delighted to see a dog on the ward. Many have been in a hospital a long time and if they have a pet at home they are usually missing them terribly, so Nelson brings real joy and comfort for a few minutes. He gives the patients a visible lift, which in turn improves the mood of the whole ward, giving the staff a much-needed boost too.
However, not all staff were initially keen on seeing Nelson walk around the wards – some were terrified. But I try to encourage them to face their fears and pet him – and most now adore him and make a huge fuss of him when he arrives. Nelson loves dog treats and everyone loves to give him one when they see him – he is food obsessed! He’s been taught to only ever use his lips to take food from people and I think he deserves all the treats he can get − he’s a wonderful dog.
I’ve seen some amazing things in my time so far here. One patient who was pretty unresponsive and barely mobile was so taken with Nelson she slowly got out of bed and kneeled with Nelson on the floor in the ward, embracing him. The staff could not believe their eyes and word soon spread – before long 14 staff were all lined up, watching this incredibly moving scene. It was so special. Moments like that make volunteering with Nelson worth all the tea in China. I feel we are really making a difference every time we come in − and it feels fantastic.”
Catch David and Nelson doing the rounds in The National every Thursday from 11am. Katie and Charlie the dog work alternate Wednesdays.