A volunteer with a difference

As every pet owner, walker and lover will know – there’s nothing quite like the bond that you can develop almost instantly with an animal. It’s something that Restorative Justice Support Worker, Katie Wheatley, witnesses on a regular basis.

Katie regularly takes young offenders to our Brighton animal centre, to take the dogs in our care out on walks. She tells us about the impact that this experience can make on the young, and often vulnerable people that she works with.

These are children and teenagers who have committed criminal offences and have been ordered to serve the community that they offended against. Katie tells us that the youth offenders she works with – who can be as young as 10 years old – often come from extremely unstable backgrounds. They may not have housing, families to support them, or be in education.

Caring for Toby

Working with the dogs can have an incredible impact on the young people that Katie takes out. She tells us that many of the young people find that they identify in a personal way with the dogs at Patcham – knowing that the animals are in our care because they may have been neglected, abandoned or abused in their previous homes.

Toby the West Highland terrier mentioned in a tweet © RSPCA

One of the younger cases Katie worked with was particularly enamoured with Toby the West Highland terrier (pictured above) who had arrived at the centre with a horrific, untreated skin condition. Because Toby’s owner hadn’t taken him to the vet, the skin condition had caused most of the small dog’s hair to fall out, and his skin to harden to a leather like texture.

At first, Toby’s young walker was convinced that he must be some strange breed of dog. When he found out that Toby was actually a Westie, he was horrified. “My mum used to keep one of those,” he confided.

The boy checked in regularly on Toby’s progress, mentioning that he’d had conversations with his family and the people around him about the dog. Katie says this was a big step for him, as he tended to be often closed off from the world and reluctant to talk. When he found out that Toby had found a new home, he heaved a sigh of relief.

Walking is a vehicle for difficult discussions

Katie can often find herself in the position of being the primary stable adult relationship in one of her young people’s lives. This means that she tackles some difficult conversations with them, and will often be the person that they talk to when they’re ready to open up about a hard subject. She says that these conversations often take place while walking the dogs, as being close to the animals can mean that the young people feel able to be vulnerable too.

Bonzo the dog mentioned in a tweet © RSPCA

Prison is a topic that comes up regularly, as something that these children and teenagers may have experienced or have been close to experiencing. They’ll see the dogs in the kennels, and in a sense behind bars, and relate to it. One of them got upset about how it’s much worse for the dogs because no one can explain to them why they’re there, or that their situation is only temporary.

Katie tells us about a few of the breakthrough moments that she’s had out on dog walks with her cases. One boy had tried to take his own life, and had afterwards closed up and been unable to talk about it. But Katie was surprised when, as they walked one of the dogs at Patcham, he began to relax a little and open up about what he’d gone through. It was a real turning point for him.

Could you talk to young people about animals?

If you’re inspired by Katie’s stories, you might be interested in a unique voluntary role that we have (Katie’s employed by Brighton and Hove’s Youth Offending Service and isn’t related to us). Our Volunteer Speaker team are passionate animal welfare advocates who go in to schools to talk to the next generation of pet owners.

Find out more about the role and the training we provide.

Toby and Bonzo have happily gone on to find loving new homes, but if you’re interested in giving a rescued dog a second chance, there are many more animals waiting for new families in our care.

And if you want to follow more of the Brighton Youth Offender services dog walking exploits, you can follow them on twitter for regular tweets and happy dog walking photos.

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