This blog reflects on our experience of undertaking an evaluation of a dementia dog walking group which formed part of our research study exploring neighbourhoods and dementia. Writing this piece now, during the time of the Corona Pandemic, it is upsetting to imagine the impact on the individuals that attend groups like this. Groups which provide opportunities to be together and with regard to this group to also be outdoors in the neighbourhood.
Much of the work of the ESRC/NIHR Neighbourhoods: Our People, Our Places study has emphasised the need to remain connected and the important value that neighbourhoods have in facilitating opportunities for support. During the research the significance of relationships with pets emerged. Dogs and cats in particular were found to be a great source of comfort and support for participants. Although there were also participants who expressed the sense of loss in their lives now they no longer owned a dog, or felt it practical to have one. Some participants described making connections in their neighbourhoods with dogs, for example one participant carried dog treats with her when she went out on her local high street, she said she recognised the dogs more than she did their owners. Other participants with dogs as pets enjoyed going on familiar dog walks and others talked about the company of pets at home. One of our research methods was a ‘home tour’ led by participants round their homes, and pets regularly featured in these, following the participants as they led us around their homes.
One aspect of the research was to work with existing neighbourhood service models or facilitate the development of new ones in order to create opportunities for on-going learning in relation to the provision of sustainable neighbourhood services. This led us to work with the ‘Paws for Dementia’ dog walking group to deliver an evaluation that might provide such an opportunity to share insights from innovative practice supporting people living with dementia in a neighbourhood setting.
The ‘Paws for Dementia’ dog walking group opened its doors in May 2018, or rather passed around it’s leads as people living with dementia, family carers, health and social care staff and volunteers began to meet to walk their dogs in a Salford park.
Many of the findings from our evaluation of this group relate to how individuals describe their experience of companionship and being outside in a green space enjoying the changing seasons. Something that currently feels acutely absent from our lives.
The group was started by Cathy Riley and Gill Drummond from Greater Manchester Mental Health Foundation NHS Trust. It had evolved out of conversations with service users, and with us (Sarah Campbell and Andrew Clark) working at the time on the ESRC/NIHR Neighbourhoods: Our People, Our Places study.
The Open Doors Network led by Cathy Riley supports people living with dementia and their families in Salford, Greater Manchester. The network aims to be responsive in its service provision and to provide activities that meet the needs of those using its services. The network were thrilled when they were successful in obtaining internal funding to pilot the dog walking service.
As Cathy Riley states, often people want to do ordinary things and to continue to be a part of their communities. This was key to the dog walking group, with the aim to support people living with dementia in the community who were dog owners to come to the group with their dogs and to be able to walk them in the company of other dog owners, and dog lovers. However, there were others who no longer owned dogs and missed the companionship of a dog who also attended the group, and could walk around the park with a dog, and pet them during the café break. Alongside this the group had funding to support patients from the local NHS Dementia Assessment units to come along supported by staff from the Occupational Therapy team. This aspect of the group aimed to support those in hospital to begin an activity that they might be able to continue once they left hospital, and this happened with at least one individual.
Undertaking the evaluation gave us chance to explore what elements of the group worked and what needed to be developed further. Initially the group facilitators had envisaged meeting in different locations to go for a walk, but this would need excellent transport options and support for travel making it much more complicated to get off the ground. Hence creating a regular meeting time and location made it more possible to grow the group, and to ensure people could get to the location. The group chose to meet in an accessible Victorian park in Salford on a reasonably good bus route and also with a car park. It is a well-maintained space which is a popular well used space with locals. It has a flat walking route which means it is accessible for wheelchair users and it has plenty of benches and resting points to support use for those who may need to rest regularly. The park also has toilet facilities and a café.
For the first group meeting in May 2018 I took my own dog, Sammy, and it was a truly lovely experience, Sammy was walked by a man who was living with dementia, and who had never owned a dog but really enjoyed the experience of walking him and having a chat. My only issue was in the café preventing Sammy eating all the biscuits put out for the group attendees!
The group lasts around 2 hours, and the walk begins from the car park. It is notable as people arrive how much they are drawn to the dogs, often ahead of the humans, reaching out to pet the dogs straining on leads to be fussed. It is a lovely sight as dogs excited for their walk wag their tails and allow people to make a fuss of them. When the group sets off it ebbs and flows as different smaller groups emerge depending on people’s speed of walking. There is also often interaction with other park users too, and dog walkers stop and chat whilst the dogs stop and sniff each other. The group attracts attention from other park users and particularly other dog walkers who are keen to know what the group is.
Considering how often it rains in Manchester, during the time we attended the group the weather was remarkable, although there were a few dull days, we were lucky that the group was never rained off, or people kept away by bad weather. Occasionally people felt a little cold, and anyone who wanted could wait at the café for the rest of the group to arrive. Dogs were welcome in the little café, which was not open to the general public. The café was booked for the group, and the participants would be welcomed with biscuits and hot drinks and there would be treats for the dogs. The café was an opportunity to sit and chat, and also pet the dogs, and many conversations occurred in the café about the dogs, and also people would share memories of previous pets and dogs they had owned. Dogs were generally well behaved (except for the occasions Sammy came…) and would have treats, and sit obediently hopeful for another, or allow themselves to be petted by one of the group members.
As a dog lover, it is easy to see the joy of getting to attend a group like this, and especially for someone who is no longer able to have a dog of their own. The interesting thing about the group is seeing the ripple effect of dogs enabling interactions, as a good topic of conversation, to get a chat started, and with people outside of the group generating opportunities for interactions between other dog owners. The dogs created excitement, in the café, and in the park, there was an energy to the group created through the relationship between humans and dogs.
There is a report of the evaluation and a graphic pamphlet available (illustrations by Domenique Brouwers). Please e-mail Cathy Riley at Cath.Riley@gmmh.nhs.uk to request the report and pamphlet.
For further information:
Dr. Sarah Campbell, Manchester Metropolitan University, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Professor Andrew Clark, University of Salford, email@example.com.
Cathy Riley, Open Doors Network, Greater Manchester NHS Foundation Trust, Cath.Riley@gmmh.nhs.uk.
Photographs taken by Sarah Campbell, Domenique Brouwers and Cathy Riley.
This blog relates to a research study that was funded jointly by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). ESRC is part of UK Research and Innovation. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ESRC, UKRI, NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care. This work forms part of the ESRC/NIHR Neighbourhoods and Dementia mixed methods study [ES/L001772/1]. It is based on work from Work Package 4.